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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday his government will soon decide whether to release treated radioactive water accumulating at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea despite strong opposition by fishermen.

While a government panel last year recommended the ocean release of treated water, which is said to pose little risk to human health, as one of the realistic options, the fisheries industry and some local governments opposed the proposal out of concern that consumers would shun seafood caught nearby.

Photo taken on Feb. 13, 2021, from a Kyodo News helicopter shows tanks storing treated radioactive water behind reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (Kyodo)

“I want to make a decision in a few days” on the disposal method of the water, Suga told reporters after meeting with Hiroshi Kishi, head of the national federation of fisheries cooperatives known as JF Zengyoren, over the issue at the premier’s office in Tokyo.

Kishi told reporters that he said during the meeting, “There is no change in the least” in his organization’s opposition to the idea of releasing the water used to cool down melted nuclear fuel into the sea.

Kishi quoted Suga as telling the group head, “The government will decide on the policy, based on experts’ proposal that the best way is to release the water into the sea.”

Hiroshi Kishi, head of the national federation of fisheries cooperatives known as JF Zengyoren, speaks to reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at his office in Tokyo on April 7, 2021. (Kyodo)

But he said, “It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air.”

“I want the government to clarify how it intends to respond to such reputational damage,” he said.

Asked about the strong local opposition regarding the discharge of the water into the sea, Suga said he is aware that many people have such views in Fukushima.

The government has said it could not keep postponing a decision on the disposal issue, given storage capacity for water tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi complex is expected to run out as early as fall next year.

It asserts that space needs to be secured on the premises, such as for keeping melted fuel debris that will be extracted from the damaged reactors, to move forward the decades-long process of scrapping the complex.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has backed the Japanese government’s plan to dispose of the water, saying, releasing it into the sea meets global standards of practice in the nuclear industry.

The Geneva-based body’s Director General Rafael Grossi, during his visit to the Fukushima complex in February, said this is a common way to release water at nuclear power plants, even when they are not in emergency situations.

But safety concerns persist, with 15 countries and regions still restricting imports of Japanese agricultural and fishery products more than 10 years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, caused by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

In addition to the local fishery industry, neighboring countries such as China and South Korea have expressed wariness over the discharge of water from the Fukushima plant into the environment.

The Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which suffered core meltdowns due to the natural catastrophe, continues to generate massive amounts of radiation-tainted water after being used to cool melted fuels.

The water is treated using an advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS, to remove most contaminants and stored in tanks on the complex premises. The process, however, cannot remove tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors.

In February last year, a government panel proposed various options for disposing of the water, including releasing it into the ocean as well as evaporating it.

The following month, TEPCO drafted a plan to dilute the water to below the legal limit for concentration of radioactive materials before dumping it in the sea.

The government had initially hoped to make a decision on the discharge of the treated water in October last year but later decided it would need more time for discussions.

In February last year, a government panel proposed various options for disposing of the water, including releasing it into the ocean as well as evaporating it. The following month, TEPCO drafted a plan to dilute the water to below the legal limit for concentration of radioactive materials before dumping it in the sea.