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South Korea bans Japanese fish imports

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 9:45 p.m.
A worker at Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in Seoul uses a Geiger counter to check for possible radioactive contamination of fish on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

SEOUL — South Korea on Friday banned imports of fish from a long coastal strip by Japan's still-leaking Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, in a sign of widening fears in the region about an environmental disaster that the Japanese are struggling to contain.

A government spokesman in Seoul attributed the decision to “sharply increased” public concern about seafood in Japan — particularly as hundreds of tons of toxic water flow daily from the stricken facility into the ocean. South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries criticized Japan for its failure to provide clear information about the condition of the plant, site of three March 2011 meltdowns and an increasingly complex cleanup job.

Japan emphasized that its seafood is safe and subject to “stringent” international controls, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo. But the South Korean ban deals a blow to Japan's image ahead of a Saturday vote by the International Olympic Committee on the host of the 2020 Summer Games. Tokyo — located 150 miles south of Fukushima Daiichi — is one of the three finalists, along with Madrid and Istanbul, and Japanese officials have spent recent days assuring committee members that their country is safe.

The South Korean import ban marks a major expansion of existing restrictions, under which 49 species of fish from Fukushima are blocked from the Korean market. A handful of other species from the broader region, mostly bottom-feeders, have been banned.

Now, all fish from nearly 600 miles of coastline are banned, “regardless of whether they are contaminated or not,” the Oceans and Fisheries Ministry said. The ban includes areas as far south as Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo.

Suga said Friday that contamination was limited to an area of only several hundred yards around the plant.

Although Japan's central government said in December 2011 that its reactors had been stabilized and their core temperatures cooled to far safer levels, the decommissioning of the cracked and leaky plant has caused a new set of environmental concerns. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which operates the plant, recently admitted after months of denials that water was still leaking into the ocean from trenches near the reactor buildings.

Engineers have struggled to contain the toxic water, which is not only entering the sea but flowing into critical buildings as it mixes with groundwater. So far, Tepco has tried to pump out that toxic water and store it in gray tanks on the outskirts of the facility. But one of those hastily built tanks has already sprung a leak. Others still might, regulators say.

Japan's government pledged Tuesday to spend nearly $500 million to contain the toxic water problem, in part by freezing soil around the reactors. Engineers would pump a coolant through pipes, creating a seal that prevents groundwater from entering the facility. But analysts say it's unclear whether such technology, which is costly, can serve as a long-term solution.

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