By Akiko Okamoto, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Tom Bateman
SOMA, Japan (Reuters) - On a recent Wednesday morning, supermarket owner Takashi Nakajima expertly sliced into slabs of raw sea bream and horse mackerel, placing the thin wedges of the local Fukushima catch on a plate to be sold in the store he inherited from his father.
It's been a long battle to get radiation-wary customers back to the seafood from waters near the Fukushima nuclear power plant that was wrecked in the 2011 tsunami, Nakajima says. Now, with the imminent release of treated radioactive water from the plant into the Pacific, he fears a return to square one.
"This can't be happening," the 67-year-old said in the backyard kitchen of his supermarket in Soma city, just 45 km (28 miles) north of the stricken power plant.
"If diluted with a large volume of sea water, it wouldnaturally be thinned out enough to be considered safe. Theproblem is, this water release will go on for at least 30 years."
Japan said on Tuesday it would start discharging more than 1 million metric tonnes of the treated water on Aug. 24. The plan, which the U.N. nuclear regulatory body considers safe, has alarmed the local fishing industry as well as neighbouring countries, especially China.
The government says the water has been filtered to removemost radioactive elements except for tritium, levels of which would be well below internationally approved levels after dilution.
Nakajima recalls the discouragement he felt in the months following the nuclear disaster, which spewed radiation into the atmosphere for hundreds of miles. Customers shunned the produce that was the source of their own community's livelihood, leaving him to wonder whether he should be selling it at all.
"I lost confidence right then," he said.
Over the years, customers slowly returned as food safety tests came back negative for abnormal radiation levels. Encouragement also came from long-time customers like former fisherman Yasutaka Shishido, who had no qualms about buying local fish and vegetables.
Still, with so many unknowns, Nakajima, who also heads a group suing the government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power for compensation, said the day of the water release could mark the beginning of a new battle.
"No scientific research has been conducted as to what would happen as a result of the discharge of all the water over the 30 years," said Nakajima, adding he may take fresh legal action to stop the plan.
"The release is unscientific in the extreme, and will surely dampen fish sales."
To help the fishing industry cope with possible reputational damage such as slow sales from the water release, the government has set up funds totalling 80 billion yen ($550 million) to help develop new sales channels and keep excess fish frozen until they can be sold when demand recovers, among other measures.
For Nakajima, the stakes are high not just for today's fishermen but for those that will come down the road.
"If we remain uninterested, take no action and look theother way, we will inevitably become the target of criticism from later generations. If we are to avoid that situation, the day will come where we will have to fight."
($1 = 145.4100 yen)
(Reporting by Akiko Okamoto, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Tom Bateman; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Stephen Coates)