SOMA, Japan — For much of his life, Koichi Matsumoto, 58, happily slipped out of bed in the dead of night to work on a fishing trawler.
But these days, his catch is tree branches, tires and other rubble still adrift since the massive earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan more than two years ago.
"It feels as if we're right back where we were after the disaster," which struck March 11, 2011, said Matsumoto, a third-generation fisherman and head of the trawl boat unit at the 1,000-member Soma-Futaba fisheries cooperative.
The lives of Matsumoto and about 1,500 other fishermen in the Fukushima region are back in flux because of the discovery in August that 300 tons of radioactive wastewater was pouring into the ocean each day from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
It's unclear how long the massive volume has been leaking from underneath the damaged reactors and emergency wastewater tanks constructed nearby. It's also uncertain how long it will take for the flow to be halted.
What is clear is that the leakage has proved a major setback for fishery operators, who had been slowly resuming work since mid-2012. At that time, they began test operations that allowed them to sell their catch — worth about $100 million in annual profit before the magnitude 9 earthquake — after screening it for radiation. More than 37 miles off the coast, they caught fish that didn't show detectable levels of radioactive particles.
But now they are back to square one, their hope for a steady recovery dashed by the problems at the nuclear plant.
To make ends meet, Matsumoto and others have taken to using their trawlers for tasks such as rubble collection and radiation monitoring. The rubble pickup is paid for by the Japanese government. Some fishermen have also been hired to help at the nuclear plant by its owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco.
"We can't fish as much, so we've been doing many public works projects," Matsumoto said.
The earthquake and towering tsunami that ensued took the lives of 101 fishermen in Matsumoto's cooperative. Many family members were also swept out to sea as the tsunami swallowed large portions of the coast, including Matsumoto's home.
After grieving and adjusting to life in rental housing about 30 miles from the crippled reactor, Fukushima fishermen, including Matsumoto, sought to restart operations in July 2011. But the fish contained unacceptably high levels of radiation.
When the levels finally came down and the test operations began, many shoppers continued to avoid Fukushima-area food products.
Things had started to look up only recently.
"Consumers were finally feeling comfortable buying our fish," Matsumoto said with a sigh.
Then came news of the massive leaks, followed by little assurance that a quick and reasonable response was possible.
Tepco spokesman Ryo Shimizu says there are about 1,000 tanks of various sizes holding radioactive wastewater on the property. About 350 of the tanks held together by bolts are the ones that have been found to be leaking, he said. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government has become increasingly hands-on in the recovery process, has ordered the tanks replaced.
Tepco has also increased the number of leak-detection workers from nine to 90, Shimizu said.
But swapping out tanks will be time-consuming because it means exposing the radioactive water and finding space for new tanks, experts say.
"You have to remember that these workers are in a hostile environment with very high radioactive levels, and so doing work is challenging," said Kenji Araki, a nuclear engineering guest professor at the Fukushima National College of Technology.
With radioactive underground water also running into the ocean, Tepco's plan is to freeze the soil and complete an underground wall by 2015.
Tepco says it is also trying to extract radioactive wastewater from wells.
But concern remains.
"It is unclear how the underground water is being contaminated," Araki said, speculating that it's the result of plutonium near the reactor core having melted and dropping somewhere inside the reactor. Pinpointing leaks is very difficult, Araki said.
An estimated 60 billion becquerels of cesium-137 and strontium-90 are being discharged daily into the Pacific from the ditch at the north end of the reactors, said Michio Aoyama, senior researcher at the geochemical research department of the Meteorological Research Institute at the Japan Meteorological Agency. He reported his findings Sept. 18 at an International Atomic Energy Agency gathering.
Shinji Tokonami, health physics professor at Hirosaki University, said such radioactive levels should have no effect on human health.
"The radioactive particles are diffused quickly when it reaches the ocean," Tokonami said.
The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare says the safe limit for food is 100 Bq per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Fukushima fishing groups have been testing to see whether fish they catch have elevated levels of radioactive particles and whether the ocean itself is showing higher readings since the leakage was announced in August.
"Our data says there is no increase in radioactivity," Matsumoto said. "Our only choice is to believe that Tepco will do the right thing and stop the leaks. All we want is to go back to where our lives were."
Nagano is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times