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Japan releases water from damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into Pacific Ocean

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Japan began releasing water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. That happened today. The plant was crippled a dozen years ago when an earthquake and tsunami caused reactors to melt down. The government says the water it's discharging now has been treated to remove most of the radioactive material, making it safe. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Fukushima Prefecture, the release remains controversial.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Just as the plant began releasing the water, fishermen were auctioning their catch at a port to the north. Fisherman Haruo Ono says his catch this morning was good. He says local fish commands a good price in the fish markets of Tokyo. He's concerned that the price will fall after the water's released.

HARUO ONO: (Through interpreter) We've been protecting the oceans since the time of our ancestors, and we must continue to do so in future.

KUHN: Ono says the government has abandoned Fukushima's fishermen. He and his colleagues are suing the government to stop the release.

ONO: (Through interpreter) Fukushima folks didn't do anything wrong. It was the government that came here and built the nuclear plant. Who uses the electricity? Tokyo.

KUHN: In a meeting with fisheries representatives on Monday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida assured them of the government's support, including buying their catch if they can't sell it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER FUMIO KISHIDA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "We'll continue taking necessary measures," he said, "to ensure fisherfolk can continue their activities with peace of mind. And we pledge to continue doing so even if the water release takes a long time."

It's expected to take decades, which could be a very long time for Fukushima residents to wait. Kunpei Hayashi, an agriculture expert at Fukushima University, says that in pre-industrial times, Fukushima locals would head to Tokyo to find work in winter, as there wasn't much to do at home. Since the Fukushima nuclear plant was built in 1967, Hayashi says, the local economy became reliant on it and the government subsidies it brought. He says this might be a good time to reconsider it.

KUNPEI HAYASHI: (Through interpreter) This will be a turning point in the history of building one nuclear power plant after another for the big city of Tokyo.

KUHN: Supermarket owner Takashi Nakajima has watched as Fukushima's landscape has changed since the disaster. Seawalls have gone up to protect against future tsunamis, and buildings have moved back from the shore. But he says the big changes here are in people's mindsets.

TAKASHI NAKAJIMA: (Through interpreter) For the first time, we were forced to think that the life we've lived since the time of our ancestors could easily be destroyed or changed. It makes us feel a kind of impermanence. Our trust and happiness in relying on our hometown has been destroyed.

KUHN: Nakajima says that despite the government's assurances, locals don't really have enough information to decide whether the water discharge is safe or not. A recent Kyodo News agency poll found that 44% of Japanese are unsure whether to support or oppose the release. Eighty-two percent say the government hasn't done enough to explain it. Nakajima's grand-neice, 12-year-old Nozomi Sanpei, says she's against it.

NOZOMI SANPEI: (Through interpreter) It would be bad if people catch those fish, eat them and become victims. And what can I say? I feel sorry for the fish.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.