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Despite Fukushima disaster, anti-nuclear activists fight uphill battle in Japan

Even though most Japanese now oppose nuclear power, activists say building a strong movement has proven difficult.

By Winifred BirdCorrespondent / February 9, 2012

Local government officials inspect the bottom of the No. 4 reactor inside the containment vessel at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant in Fukushima Prefecture February 8.

Kyodo News/REUTERS

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Yokohama, Japan

The triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant last March unleashed the largest wave of public protest the country, not known for its activism, has seen in decades.

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But activists say they are struggling to turn widespread anger toward the government agencies and industry responsible for the disaster into a sustained movement that causes real change.

“[After the accident] parents’ groups sprang up all over the country, and for six months or so they’ve been able to run on pure momentum. But long-term activism is very difficult. We have to turn this into a movement that doesn’t forget, doesn’t give up, and doesn’t stop,” says Emiko Ito, a mother of four and co-founder of the National Network of Parents to Protect Children from Radiation, which has over 275 member organizations from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

Mothers make up the majority of new participants, Ms. Ito says. The Tokyo area has the most groups, followed by the Osaka/Kyoto region and then the prefectures near the damaged plant. 

The groups are demanding school boards test school lunches, pushing city councils to reject shipments of contaminated soil from Fukushima, and petitioning the central government to give families the right to evacuate from a wider area around the nuclear plant. They have had some success, including a government commitment to pay for devices to measure radiation levels in school lunches in 17 prefectures.

The anti-nuclear movement, too, has surged compared with the last major wave triggered by the Chernobyl accident. Following huge protests last summer and fall, campaigners say they have gathered enough signatures to hold referendums on nuclear power in both Tokyo and Osaka (the number of valid signatures in Tokyo has yet to be verified). Other groups are working to prevent the government from restarting plants shut down for routine inspections and "stress tests" after the Fukushima disaster. In a late-October poll by national broadcaster NHK, 66 percent of respondents said they wanted nuclear power abolished or reduced – an increase of 24 percentage points compared with April.

But long-time environmental activist and conference co-organizer Aileen Mioko Smith says anti-nuclear groups have not experienced the same dramatic growth as radiation-protection groups.

“Masses of people are not calling to say, ‘What can I do?’” she says. “There’s a route where people are worried about [contaminated] food or rubble, then do some petitions, then that leads to, ‘Hey, why is this going on?’ But it’s not everyone. 

In fact, many radiation-protection groups have distanced themselves from the anti-nuclear movement in order to broaden membership.

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