Japan's anti-nuclear protesters find the going tough, despite Fukushima disaster

Polls show the public turning against nuclear energy after Japan's Fukushima disaster. But low coverage of protests and powerful business and political interests have complicated efforts to promote change.

Koji Sasahara/AP
A protester shows a 'No nukes' sign as they march during an anti-nuclear power demonstration in Tokyo, one month ago.

As staffers trickle out of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) on their way home from work, a group of women from Fukushima Prefecture shout at them through a megaphone.

“When are we going to be able to return to our hometowns? Will they ever be safe to live in again? When will you take responsibility for this?” the women call out toward the ministry, which has been responsible for both promoting nuclear energy and overseeing its safety in Japan.    

A Buddhist monk in white and orange robes from the pacifist Nipponzan-Myohoji sect is reciting anti-nuclear chants to the beat he is tapping out on a hand drum.

The informal group of dozens of protesters has maintained a camp outside METI  for more than two months. It represents an undercurrent of anger throughout the country that, eight months after a massive earthquake and tsunami  triggered a nuclear crisis, the situation at the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has yet to be secured.  

The radioactive gas xenon was discovered earlier this month near reactor 2, and radiation levels of 620 millisieverts per hour were detected inside reactor 3 on Nov. 3.

Then, last week, tests found radioactive contamination above government safety levels in rice crops from the Onami area of Fukushima, prompting farmers in the district to suspend shipments.   

Officials at the Tokyo Electric Power company (TEPCO), which operates the facility, say that the xenon was created by natural radioactive decay and not by recent nuclear fission at the reactor, as initially feared. However, the radiation levels on the first floor of reactor 3 – the highest yet measured there ­– are more than double the 250 millisieverts that nuclear workers can be exposed to over short periods in times of emergency, according to the company’s own guidelines.

This means that workers would only be able to operate in the most highly contaminated areas for less than half an hour before they would be exposed to threatening levels of radiation.

Nevertheless, TEPCO maintains that a full cold shutdown of the damaged reactors will be achieved by the end of the year. 

The cost of a nuclear disaster

The full decommissioning of the plant is expected to take 30 years and cost up to $30 billion. The utility, once the world’s biggest by capitalization, recently secured a rescue package of 900 billion yen ($11.6 billion) from the government to keep operating in the face of the huge clean-up costs and growing compensation liabilities.   

Along with the 160,000 people evacuated due to the accident, there are the numerous businesses in sectors including tourism, agriculture, and fishing that have been devastated.

Just how much TEPCO is to be held liable for, and how much responsibility the government will take, has yet to be finalized. Authorities say they won’t set a timeframe to discuss the possibility of evacuees being able to return until the reactors have achieved cold shutdown.  

Greenpeace is calling on the Japanese authorities to, at the very least, provide financial assistance for those who want to evacuate from areas outside the 30 km (18.5 miles) exclusion zone.   

“We think that the people of Fukushima City and Koriyama City should have the right to evacuate – they don't have it yet, so that's a major demand we have, though it should not be imposed on people,” says Jan Vande Putte, an energy and nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace in Japan.  

“It would be above our mandate to say to the Japanese what they should do," he adds. "What we can do is to explain what the risks are, explain what was done elsewhere, and then ask for the right of each individual who is living in an area where levels are above 1 microsievert per hour, especially for young children and pregnant women, to evacuate.  So they should have the right to evacuate and receive support logistically and financially, and compensation.”

Calls to end nuclear power use

At the protest camp outside METI, the various anti-nuclear groups are calling for the end of nuclear power generation across Japan in the wake of Fukushima. And recent public-opinion polls show that the Japanese public is turning against nuclear energy after the Fukushima accident.

Still, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has expressed support for it. And activists say they are being ignored by the domestic media and threatened by ultra-nationalist groups. 

“The Japanese newspapers and TV stations all take so much advertising money from the power companies that they won’t report on the strength of the anti-nuclear movement or cover our protests,” says Tadao Eda, who acts as a spokesperson for the camp. 

“Even the Asahi [Japan’s leading liberal newspaper] only runs tiny articles about what’s happening here as a kind of alibi to their readers,” says Mr. Eda with a wry smile. “Their sponsors are more important to them. We’ve had five nationalist sound-trucks lined up here in right in front of us blaring out veiled threats to us and blocking up this major intersection. They ask what would happen if someone set fire to our tents and we got burned, and the police don’t do anything about it."

'We are not alone'

But Eda is sure that his group of protesters is not alone. He estimates that more than 1,000 people formed a candle-lit human chain around METI on the evening Nov. 11, the eight-month anniversary of the beginning of the crisis. And, in other parts of the country, people have also been protesting. On Nov. 18 at the site of another nuclear power plant on the southern island of Kyushu, some 15,000 people demonstrated to call on the government to scrap all of the nation's reactors.  

Anti-nuclear protesters have an unlikely ally in Masayoshi Son, Japan's richest man. The multibillionaire CEO of Softbank, which owns a major mobile phone carrier, 40 percent of Yahoo! Japan, and a championship-winning baseball team, is pushing solar energy as a post-Fukushima alternative. Mr. Son, who is donating his lifelong future earnings to victims of the triple March disasters, is planning to build 10 mega-solar plants. He says that such facilities covering 20 percent of unused agricultural land in Japan could generate as much as power as TEPCO. 

Meanwhile, Tokyo Metropolitan Government has announced plans for gas power stations to be built in city parks that are designated disaster response areas. The idea is to safeguard electricity supplies in the event of the kind of power shortages that followed March's nuclear accident. 

In front the ministry, despite harassment from the nationalist groups and minimum media attention, the protesters say they intend to stay camped out there until their objectives are met.

“There are currently 11 of Japan’s 54 reactors running. The rest have been stopped for safety checks, but the power companies will start them again if they’re allowed to,” says Eda. “We’ll be here until the last one is stopped and we have assurances they’ll never be started up again.”

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