South Korea banned all fishery imports from a swath of Japan around the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant on Friday, dealing another blow to Tokyo's credibility on the eve of the capital's bid to host the Olympics.
Just hours after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe broke away early from a global summit in Russia to personally back Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Summer Games, Seoul extended a ban on 50 imports from eight Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima, due to concerns about radiation contamination.
"The measures are due to the sharply increased concern in the public about the flow of hundreds of metric tons of contaminated water into the ocean at the site of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan," a spokesman for the South Korean Prime Minister's office told reporters.
Korea's indefinite ban, which takes effect on Monday and affects some of the country's biggest fishing areas, adds to international pressure on Japan to fix the crisis in Fukushima, 230 km (140 miles) from the capital Tokyo.
China has banned the import of dairy, vegetable and seafood products from at least 5 Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima, since March 2011.
Fukushima's embattled operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, has been forced to reverse denials and admit that 2 1/2 years after the reactor was wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami, it is still leaking hundreds of metric tons of radioactive water a day into the Pacific Ocean and radiation levels have spiked.
Japan has struggled to assure the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Argentina, and the public at large that it can manage the Fukushima crisis.
The IOC is to decide on Saturday whether to award the Games to Tokyo, Madrid or Istanbul.
FUKUSHIMA THREATENS ABE'S OLYMPIC GAMBLE
Tokyo's bid for the Olympics is a high-stakes gamble for Abe and his "Abenomics" program. The right to host the games would likely boost Abe's popularity and could potentially spur his signature pro-growth policies for the world's third-biggest economy.
Tokyo's Olympic bid chief on Wednesday played down fears over Fukushima, saying Tokyo's radiation level is comparable to London, Paris and New York.
Japan's top government spokesman on Friday rejected the need for Korea's ban, saying the country's fishery exports are safe for consumption because of the stringent inspection procedure in place.
Toxic water is confined to a small bay near the plant and, even there radiation readings are far below allowed limits, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
"We have been providing relevant information to the South Korean government," Suga told a regular news conference. "We would like South Korea to take steps based on scientific evidence."
But Vice Fisheries Minister Son Jae-hak told a news briefing that information received from Japan was not good enough to properly judge the situation and that Seoul will also tighten testing on fishery imports from other areas of Japan.
South Korea imported 5,000 metric tons of fishery products from the eight affected prefectures last year, out of a total of 40,000 metric tons of imports from Japan, Son said.
LATEST FUKUSHIMA SETBACK
Tepco last month admitted that 300 metric tons of toxic water had escaped from one of the tanks assembled to store contaminated run-off, and has since found radiation hotspots in three other holdings areas. Tepco is storing enough contaminated water to fill more than 130 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Abe's government stepped in this week, pledging nearly half a billion dollars to help Tokyo Electric Power Co try to contain the contaminated water.
The Korean ban comes as one of Tepco's key plans for containing the water problem - digging a "bypass" to divert clean groundwater around the reactors and into the sea - suffered a further setback.
Tepco said the tank that leaked radioactive water is 130 meters (426 feet) or more above the planned bypass area and that the leak may have already reached groundwater. That suggests the bypass would have to be constructed much farther from the sea than planned, complicating an already fraught effort.
Local fishermen have consistently opposed the bypass plan.
On Friday, the head of the national fisheries cooperatives' federation met with Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and reiterated that the union would never accept any release of low radioactive water into the ocean, as suggested by Japan's nuclear regulator.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Kentaro Hamada; Writing by William Mallard; Editing by John Mair and Michael Perry)
(Source : Reuters)
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