Japan PM Kishida to decide start date of Fukushima water release on Tuesday

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the government will decide on Tuesday when it will begin to discharge treated radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, in a plan criticized at home and abroad.

Speaking to reporters at his office in Tokyo, Kishida reiterated the importance of moving forward with the decommissioning process for the damaged plant, but declined to give a window for when the release might happen.

Broadcaster NHK said Kishida is finalising plans to start releasing the water as soon as possible after Thursday, without clarifying its sources.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last month greenlighted the programme, saying that the impact from the water release on people and the environment would be “negligible”.

Despite such assurances, the prospect of more than a million tons of water being pumped into the Pacific from the nuclear plant owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company has sparked alarm in South Korea and China, which banned seafood imports from some areas of Japan following the nuclear disaster in 2011.

Local fishing groups have also protested the plan, saying they are gravely concerned over the reputational damage from the water release – expected to take decades to complete – and its impact on their livelihoods.

Japan’s Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said earlier on Monday the government had won “a degree of understanding” from the fishing industry for the release of the water.

Kishida and Nishimura on Monday met Masanobu Sakamoto, the head of the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, to offer safety assurances.

Ahead of the talks, Sakamoto said that the group’s opposition to the plan had “not changed one bit,” adding that they understood the release could be scientifically safe but still feared reputational damage.

The water, equivalent to the contents of 500 Olympic-size swimming pools, has mostly been used to cool nuclear reactors damaged in 2011 when tsunami waves crashed into the plant on the coast north of Tokyo after an earthquake.

It has been treated to remove most radioactive elements except for tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that must be diluted because it is difficult to filter.

Kishida acknowledged the concerns of the fishing association but said the water release had become a pressing matter, and asked them to understand that the disposal of the water was necessary.

“I promise that we will take on the entire responsibility of ensuring the fishing industry can continue to make their living, even if that will take decades,” he said.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly, Satoshi Sugiyama, Elaine Lies, Chang-Ran Kim and Sakura Murakami; Writing by Elaine Lies and Sakura Murakami; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Clarence Fernandez and Sharon Singleton)