Release of radioactive water from Fukushima OK-ed by Japan

Workers at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station work among underground water storage pools on 17 April 2013. Two types of above-ground storage tanks rise in the background. An IAEA expert team visited the site on April 2013 as part of a mission to review Japan's plans to decommission the facility. Photo Credit: Greg Webb / IAEA

Roughly 1,000 tanks holding 1.2 million tons of diluted but still radioactive water will be released into the ocean starting next year.

The toxic stockpile stems from damage to the Fukushima nuclear power station by a horrific 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The incident damaged the plant’s cooling systems and caused three reactor cores to melt.

According to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the water has been treated with an “advanced liquid processing system” (ALPS) to remove most radioactive isotopes, including cesium and strontium – but tritium is difficult to separate from water, because it closely resembles hydrogen, which is a natural component of water.

TEPCO plans to dilute the stored water with seawater to bring tritium to within allowable levels and discharge it to the ocean via a kilometer-long underwater pipe in early 2023.

A survey of local mayors in Fukushima and nearby prefectures found that nearly 60 percent opposed the release. The fishery cooperatives in those prefectures oppose it. The survey said that understanding of the plan by residents and foreign countries had not been achieved.

South Korea previously criticized the plan, citing insufficient consultation. However, the team that will monitor the release was joined last July by a member from the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety. The team includes experts from 11 countries, including the United States, France and China.

A release of the water into the sea has faced fierce opposition from local fishermen and residents who demand the government explain how it will address damage to the fishing industry. Fishermen and fishing cooperatives worry that consumers will not trust the safety of their products.

The government has said it will do its utmost to support local fisheries and provide compensation for any damages.

To address concerns, the government has created a fund to buy and store seafood products that can be frozen. It also pledged to help fishermen expand sales channels for fresh seafood items if domestic or export demands drop sharply as a result of the toxic water release.

“The government has given instructions to TEPCO to create a plan for compensating fishermen in case they suffer losses as a result of any harm caused by the release, including reputational harm,” SeafoodSource reported.

Regarding possible risks to U.S. fisheries, the Food and Drug Administration said “Tritium presents an extremely low human and animal health risk if consumed and any health risk would be further minimized with the dilution effects of discharge into the ocean.”

AK’s roe herring fisheries: High quotas, little buying interest. 

Roe herring from Alaska’s three largest fisheries produced record catches this spring but little interest from the one buyer.

The combined harvests at Sitka, Kodiak and Togiak total 118,346 short tons, or nearly 237 million pounds! However, except at Kodiak the catches fell far short of the quota.

Sitka Sound’s fishery kicked off on March 26 and continued through April 10. The preliminary herring sac roe fishery harvest there was about 25,500 tons (51,000 pounds), or 56% of the projected 45,164 tons (90.3 million pounds), the largest quota ever.

A total of 28 of the 47 permit-holders participated in the Sitka roe herring fishery.

The herring fishery at Kodiak Island began on April 1 and wrapped up by around April 24 with the highest harvest ever at 9,000 tons (18 million pounds).

Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery at Togiak in Bristol Bay kicks began in May with a whopping harvest guideline set at 65,107 tons (130 million pounds).

Only eight seiners and two processors participated at Togiak this year. The total herring harvest was pegged at about 15,000 tons (30 million pounds), according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game area manager Tim Sands.

In recent years, the value of Alaska’s roe herring fisheries at first wholesale (the price the processors get for the fish) was about $8.3 million, down from the record of $51.3 million in 1988. The prices to fishermen now have averaged about $.08 per pound. At Togiak, the herring tonnage has paid out at around $100/ton; in 2021 at Kodiak, the price was $165/ton.

In other parts of the world, herring are processed into many product forms, such as whole kippered (smoked), fillets, pickled and served fried, broiled, grilled and steamed. But in Alaska the fishery targets female herring only for their eggs.

The males that are taken as bycatch and the female carcasses are both ground up for meal for foreign fish farms, or simply discarded. A small portion is sold as bait.

The Alaska herring not destined for human consumption runs as high as 88% each year.

Changing tastes and attitudes in Japan over several decades have toppled interest in the market, and Alaska has not broadened its base to other customers.

“It’s maybe the most extreme example of how a major Alaska industry could be dependent on an extremely specialized foreign market. And it is a stark contrast to the diverse buyers of other Alaska species,” said Gunnar Knapp, a retired University of Alaska fisheries economist.

A report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says that herring fillet production at Togiak could boost the first wholesale value to $14.5 million. That compares to an average value of $2.7 million between 2000 and 2019.

The Alaska legislature this session extended a product development tax for herring that it first passed in 2014. Little, if any, progress was made in terms of new products from that initial effort.

Mark Palmer, chief executive of OBI Seafoods which operates 10 processing plants in Alaska, told Alaska senators that financial incentives to buy new equipment will give processors a chance to compete.

“The opportunity is there for us to invest in equipment for full utilization for nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, other value-added food grade products,” Palmer said.

Herring marketers must have a ready customer before they can take advantage of the tax break.

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.