The release of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the sea could exacerbate concerns about how Japanese marine products are viewed overseas.

Gaining effective approval of the plan by the U.N. nuclear watchdog was seen by some as a last-ditch effort by Japan to get the European Union and countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Norway to either accept the release or lift import restrictions on food products.

Still, disaster management experts say more action is needed to fully gain consumers' confidence in products from the areas around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Fishing boats are moored at a fishing port in Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on the morning of Aug. 24, 2023. (Kyodo)

"The government has been striving to explain the plan but its efforts have proved insufficient considering the public concerns still out there," said Naoya Sekiya, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo's Center for Integrated Disaster Information Research.

The release of the treated water over a decade after the worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster is a major step forward for plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. to advance the decommissioning of the nuclear plant. But it also marks the beginning of a harsher challenge for local businesses to win back consumers in Asia and elsewhere, experts say.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said last month in its final review report that the planned discharge of the water used to cool melted nuclear fuel at the plant site, mixed with rain and groundwater, complies with global safety standards.

But China and Russia have called on Japan to halt the plan. They would prefer the water to be disposed of via vapor release as they believe it would lessen the impact on countries neighboring Japan, according to diplomatic sources. A fishermen's organization in the Philippines has also voiced its opposition.

China's top diplomat Wang Yi has said the discharge of "nuclear-contaminated water" is a matter of "human life and health" and Japan should "scientifically discuss various ways" to deal with the water.

Beijing on Thursday suspended imports of all seafood products from Japan after the release of the treated water, a blow to Tokyo as China was Japan's biggest destination for food, agriculture, forestry and fisheries exports in 2022, accounting for 20.8 percent of such exports.

In addition, Hong Kong and Macao, both semiautonomous regions of China, have opted to restrict seafood imports and ban imports of various food items from parts of Japan, respectively.

The water is being treated using an advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS, to remove most of the contaminants other than the relatively nontoxic tritium.

About 1.34 million tons of such water is stored in more than 1,000 tanks at the site. That accounts for 98 percent of the total capacity and means TEPCO has to dispose of the water soon to free up space so that work to scrap the nuclear complex can continue.

In a bid to explain the process and safety measures surrounding it, government officials held a series of town hall meetings and briefing sessions both in Japan and abroad, in addition to releasing English-language videos on YouTube.

But the latest Kyodo News survey on Sunday found 81.9 percent of respondents think the government's efforts to win over the public's understanding are insufficient and 88.1 percent are worried about the economic damage from the water discharge.

Local fishermen, hotel operators and other businesses in Fukushima Prefecture expressed their disappointment at the government's decision given their repeated calls that the plan be halted.

The government and TEPCO promised local fishermen in 2015 that they would not go ahead with the plan without gaining the "understanding" of concerned parties.

"I have no understanding. But they will release the water anyway no matter how hard we protest," said Nobutoshi Takahashi, a fisherman in Soma.

People protest against the release of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea in the northeastern Japanese town of Okuma, which co-hosts the plant with Futaba town, on Aug. 24, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

"It's only a matter of time before we see the impact emerging," the head of a traditional Japanese-inn in Iwaki said.

Soma and Iwaki are located around 50 kilometers from the crippled plant.

Disaster experts say there are many misconceptions regarding the progress made in the decommissioning work and decontamination of the plant, not to mention how local residents have rebuilt their lives in Fukushima Prefecture and nearby areas. All of these, they say, have hindered people from obtaining a proper understanding of the water release plan.

A recent survey by the Reconstruction Agency showed that about a third of respondents in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore and 17 percent in South Korea were aware that radiation levels in most parts of Fukushima Prefecture have dropped to levels equivalent to major cities in Japan and abroad.

"Many (overseas) people still think Fukushima has not recovered from the disaster and remains dangerous due to incorrect information swirling online, and they cannot understand why Japan will discharge the water from such an area they still consider as dangerous," Sekiya said.

Most evacuation orders issued immediately after the triple reactor meltdowns have been removed and only around 2 percent of the prefecture remains inaccessible.

"It is essential to spread more detailed information such as that most parts of the Fukushima Daiichi plant are accessible without the need for protective gear against radiation and most areas of Fukushima Prefecture, including the coastal area, are habitable now," he said.

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