Fisheries associations in Fukushima Prefecture told Japan's industry minister Tuesday they remain opposed to releasing treated radioactive water from a crippled nuclear power plant into the sea despite a U.N. watchdog's safety assurances for the plan.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura briefed the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations in their meeting in northeastern Japan about the International Atomic Energy Agency's comprehensive assessment released last week.

The government is seeking their understanding as it aims to start releasing the water around this summer.

The IAEA said in the report that the plan is "consistent" with international safety standards and would have "a negligible radiological impact on people and the environment." But local fishermen expressed concerns over potential reputational damage to their products.

Countries like China, Russia and North Korea have criticized Japan over the release plan.

Tetsu Nozaki (L), head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, speaks to Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura during a meeting in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on Julyl 11, 2023. (Kyodo)

Nishimura told the fishermen that the release of the treated water is a necessary step toward completing the decommissioning of the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant and facilitating the recovery of Fukushima from the 2011 disaster. The reactors suffered meltdowns triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami.

The water has been kept in over 1,000 tanks installed at the site after going through the advanced liquid processing system that removes most radionuclides except tritium, but the containers are nearing capacity.

"We basically take the position of opposing the discharge of treated water into the sea," Tetsu Nozaki, head of the federation, told Nishimura during the meeting.

But there was also an opinion among fishermen that they would accept the release if it proves not to impact people's health, according to a fisheries source who attended the meeting.

Nishimura told reporters that dialogue between fishermen and the government should continue after Tuesday's meeting and that he would like to "deepen (mutual) trust through sincere explanations."

The government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. promised local fishermen in 2015 that they would not release the treated water into the sea without gaining the "understanding" of concerned parties.

Following the IAEA's announcement of its findings, China suggested it may expand its restrictions on food imports from Japan if the discharge plan goes ahead.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin sarcastically suggested at a press conference Tuesday that Japan should "make good use of this water for drinking and swimming" if it believes in its safety, instead of discharging it into the ocean and raising international concerns.

Other countries, including South Korea and New Zealand, have shown confidence in the IAEA's assessment.

South Korea's government, following on-site observations by a delegation of experts at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in May, has affirmed that the treated water from Fukushima is in line with international safety standards based on its own analysis. The country's opposition lawmakers, however, still oppose the discharge.

The treated water with trace amounts of tritium will be diluted to one-40th of the concentration permitted under Japanese safety standards before being released via an underwater tunnel 1 kilometer off the power plant.

Tritium is known to be less harmful to the human body than other radioactive materials, such as cesium and strontium, as it emits very weak radiation and experts believe it does not accumulate or concentrate inside the body.

Nuclear power plants worldwide routinely release treated water containing low-level concentrations of tritium and other radionuclides into the environment as part of normal operations, according to the IAEA.

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