Fishermen of Fukushima left all at sea as they mourn the loss of their livelihood

The working day is now spent mending nets and boats that may never be used again

Fisherman Yoshio Ichida: “We must work to revive Fukushima fishing, but it is probably not likely.  Why would young people go into this profession?”

Fisherman Yoshio Ichida: “We must work to revive Fukushima fishing, but it is probably not likely. Why would young people go into this profession?”


Old habits die hard among fishermen: Yoshio Ichida still rises for work every day at 3am and checks the engine of his five-ton boat. Then as the sun rises over the Pacific and the trawler bobs gently in Soma wharf, he switches off the engine and gazes out at a sea too poisoned to fish.

Just 43km (27 miles) up the coast from this small harbour town, radioactivity from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant leaks into the ocean, and into the sardines, mackerel and squid that three generations of Ichida’s family once caught. Engineers are fighting what appears to be a losing battle to stop the leaks from worsening.

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) warned this week that the buildup of contaminated groundwater at the facility was on the verge of tipping out of control and said plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) “lacked a sense of crisis” about the looming damage to the Pacific.

“Right now, we have an emergency,” said Shinji Kinjo, head of an NRA taskforce.

Kinjo warned that leaking water had already flowed over a barrier built by engineers to block it.

A survey by Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry released this week said water laced with caesium and other radioactive materials was flowing into the ocean at a rate of 300 tonnes a day. The ministry, which oversees the nuclear industry, said it could not rule out the possibility that the water had been leaking into the Pacific since the crisis began more than two years ago.

Leaks admitted
Critics have accused the NRA of allowing Tepco off the hook. After months of denials, the embattled utility was finally forced to admit the groundwater leaks last week, conveniently timed, many suspect for after a general election that saw Japan’s pro-nuclear prime minister, Shinzo Abe, solidify power.

Anti-nuclear voices in the media were muted during the election campaign, and on occasion silenced completely: a YouTube video showing Abe’s security detail confiscating an anti-nuclear sign from a woman during a speech in Fukushima has gone viral – but has never been seen on TV:

Tepco last week admitted a cumulative leak of 20 trillion to 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive tritium since the March 11th, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that triggered the triple meltdown. One of the cocktail of contaminants swimming in the onsite water, tritium has a half-life of about 12 years.

Earlier this month, Tepco acknowledged that levels of radioactive caesium-134 were at their highest point since the disaster began. “We’re sorry for delaying this information,” said Tepco spokesman Yoshikazu Nagai. “We’re trying very hard to stop the leaks and fix the problem.”

Ichida (54) is not surprised. “Tepco is still trying to hide things from us,” he says. “They haven’t changed a bit.”

The fisherman despairs that the crisis will never end. “We must work to revive Fukushima fishing, but it is probably not likely,” he says, choking back tears. “Why would young people go into this profession?”

The buildup of contaminated water in the Daiichi’s ruined hulk was long predicted. Engineers pump about 400 tonnes of water a day on to the plant’s reactors to keep their melted nuclear fuel cool.

The radioactive water has to be stored in more than 1,000 giant onsite tanks, which are almost full. The plant’s makeshift decontamination system cannot keep up with the amount of toxic water being produced.

Complex cleanup
The recent admissions have forced the government to step into what many experts consider the world’s most complex nuclear cleanup. This week Abe ordered his government to help the struggling utility, a move that is likely to mean a huge injection of money into building an artificial underground wall to block the toxic water from reaching the Pacific. The Nikkei business newspaper estimates the cost of the operation at $410 million (€306 million).

Experts say the government’s admission shows the crisis at the Daiichi complex is being managed, not solved. “It is an emergency – has been since March 11th, 2011, and will continue to be long into the future,” says Shaun Burnie, an independent nuclear consultant.

Strontium detected
Every Thursday Ichida and his colleagues learn the latest radioactive readings from the sea. “Until recently, we only detected caesium, but now we detect strontium, which has much longer lifespan,” he says.

He and hundreds of other fishermen who used to work the Fukushima coast while away their days mending nets and boats they may never use. Some are contemplating virtually the only work left in the area: decontaminating Fukushima towns and villages poisoned by radiation.

“We have all made a living from the sea. We love the sea. We are proud of it and the work we got from it,” he says, choking back tears again.

“We must pass it on to the next generation. We will never get back what we had but have to keep demanding Tepco and the government take responsibility.”