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Fukushima water release stokes fresh fears for fisherman

By Elaine Lies

SHINCHIMACHI, Japan (Reuters) - A chilly dawn paints the sky magenta and purple as Japanese fisherman Haruo Ono unloads his catch of flounder, crab and sea bass from his boat at the small port of Shinchimachi.

A third-generation fisherman, Ono, 71, has been putting to sea for half a century from Shinchimachi, 55 km (34 miles) north of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, the scene in 2011 of one of the world's worst nuclear disasters.

On March 11 that year, a 9 magnitude earthquake struck offshore sending tsunami waves smashing into Japan's east coast. Ono rode out the waves at sea on his boat but on land, the waves devastated Shinchimachi and obliterated Ono's home.

The tsunami also crashed into the nuclear plant just down the coast, setting off explosions and meltdowns that released radiation over a wide swathe and shut down fishing for more than a year due to worries about radiation.

More than a decade later, Shinchimachi is still recovering as is its fishing industry but a new threat spawned by the disaster could wipe out the progress made.

The Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), which runs the crippled nuclear power station, plans to soon start releasing more than a million tons of radioactive water from the plant into the sea.

"It's been 12 years and fish prices are rising, we're finally hoping to really get down to business," Ono said.

"Now they're talking about releasing the water and we're going to have to go back to square one again. It's unbearable."

The water was mainly used to cool reactors in the aftermath of the disaster. It is enough to fill about 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools and is being stored in huge tanks at the plant.

Officials say the tanks have to be removed for reconstruction.

The water is treated, filtered and diluted and Tepco and the government say it is safe. But it does contains traces of tritium.

Even though the radioactive isotope is considered relatively harmless, the region's fishermen, like its farmers, have been struggling for years to restore the reputation of their produce and now fear the dumped water will kill their business.

"We here in Fukushima have done absolutely nothing wrong, why do they have to mess up our ocean?" Ono said. "The ocean doesn't belong to only us humans - and it isn't a garbage can."

Countries in the region have also been worried about the release though some concerns have been easing.

'WHY NOT TOKYO'

Fukushima has a long, proud fishing tradition. The area used to send its flounder in tribute to feudal lords.

But the waves nearly ended all that.

Ono was left with virtually nothing. Though his immediate family survived, a brother was killed in the roiling sea.

Ono's new home stands high inland, surrounded by other new houses on straight roads laid out after the disaster.

His bright main room contains pots of pink geraniums and a photograph of Ono taking part in the 2021 Olympic torch relay.

The area where he used to live has been turned into a park.

"In the tsunami I lost my house, I lost all my possessions, I lost my younger brother. Then we had the nuclear accident," Ono said.

"Our pain has been two or three times higher than anybody else's. Why are they still giving us a hard time? Why release water into the Fukushima ocean, why not Tokyo or Osaka?"

Experts like Toshihiro Wada, an associate professor in environment and radiation studies at Fukushima University, said the timing of the release of the water, and the alarmist talk it will bring, was unfortunate.

"Given how carefully fishing has been expanded, and that it's just approaching past levels, it's only natural this timing is a problem for fishermen who fear the impact of rumours," he said.

Tepco and the government cite radiation testing standards they say are stricter than those of other countries that also release treated water. The release has also been approved by international atomic regulator the IAEA.

"What we say to the fishermen is that we have equipment to treat the water safely," Tomohiko Mayuzumi, a Tepco spokesperson, told Reuters at the plant.

To prove how harmless it is, Tepco has been raising flounder in tanks at the plant. A live feed of the flat fish is broadcast on Tepco's YouTube channel.

Outside, work is underway to extend a pipe into the ocean to release the water from rows of stacked metal tanks.

Ono is gloomy about prospects for the next generation of fishing folk.

"It's OK for me. I'm 71, I'll keep on working at sea until I die," he said. "But what about the kids in primary and junior school? It's way too unstable for them to make a living from this."

(Additional reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Robert Birsel)