Hiro Komae/AP
Protesters holding anti-nuclear banners listen to another group of protesters shouting slogans near an area a citizens' group has set up tents to protest against the use of nuclear power on the premises of the Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry in Tokyo Friday.

Anti-nuclear movement growing in Asia

Though nuclear power still has a strong foothold in Asia, anti-nuclear sentiment and protest are growing from Mongolia to South Korea to Taiwan and even - in modest ways - in China.

Heonseok Lee has a simple way of describing how public sentiment toward nuclear power has changed in South Korea since the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant last March 11.

“Before 3/11, I’d post an article criticizing the nuclear power industry, and right away there’d be hundreds of really nasty comments. After 3/11, there’ll still be a few dozen. But not hundreds,” says Lee, a full-time anti-nuclear activist in one of the world’s most pro-nuclear countries.

Though nuclear power still has a strong foothold throughout the region, and public opinion is mixed, activists across Asia have anecdotes like this to show that anti-nuclear sentiment and protest are slowly growing from Mongolia, to South Korea to Taiwan and even - in modest ways - to China.

This month, activists from Japan and South Korea announced plans for a new East Asian civil society network to promote renewable energy and oppose nuclear power.

“The more we share information on the dangers on nuclear power and spread technology and wisdom regarding natural energy, the more East Asia will become the center of peace, not conflict; of life, not destruction,” the network’s initial declaration reads, referring to frequent clashes in the region on the governmental level. Organizers are recruiting 311 prominent pop-culture figures, activists, politicians, and scientists to sign the declaration in time for a March 11 launch (they have 200 signatures so far). Eventually, they hope to coordinate actions, hold joint events, and share information region-wide.  

With its rapid economic growth and pressing need for low-carbon energy, however, Griffith University research fellow Vlado Vivoda says Asia is still on track to become the nuclear powerhouse of the future. It will take constant pressure and recruitment for activists to run with the Fukushima momentum and make the case that alternative energy sources – which are also booming in the region – can entirely replace nuclear reactors.

“Governments have acknowledged the disaster and announced new safety measures, but remain committed to nuclear power,” says Vivoda, who studies Asian energy security issues.

In November South Korean officials reaffirmed plans to nearly double the number of reactors operating domestically and make nuclear technology an export focus. China, too, shows little sign of revising plans to dramatically increase capacity, although it has temporarily delayed approval of new plants in order to reassess safety. And in the Taiwanese presidential election this month, current president Ma Ying-jeou beat out anti-nuclear challenger Tsai Ing-wen, who had promised to halt construction on two new reactors.

“The nuclear industry is very positive about potential for growth in East Asia,” says Ian Hore-Lacy, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, an international industry group.

Despite that Lee says that in the past 10 months, religious groups, unions, co-ops, and professional associations have joined the South Korean anti-nuclear movement, which had previously been composed mainly of environmental groups. In December, protesters demonstrated in Seoul and other areas after the government announced it had picked sites for two new nuclear plants.

The anti-nuclear movement has grown in Taiwan as well, according to long-time activist Sun-han Hong. Protests in late April drew a record 15,000 participants, and in December President Ma announced the lifetime of three existing nuclear plants would not be extended – a policy reversal for his party. But Hong said the Taiwanese public still has not fully registered what happened in Fukushima, and attempts to block the budget for the new plants have failed.

Developments have been similarly mixed in Mongolia, which has no nuclear reactors but does have extensive uranium deposits. After news articles last spring revealed negotiations between US, Japanese, and Mongolian officials to dump spent nuclear fuel in Mongolia, the Mongolian Green Party spearheaded protests against the plans by holding press conferences, demonstrating when Vice President Biden visited the country, and delivering over 6,000 signatures to the National Security Council. President Tsakhia Elbegdorj eventually ordered a halt to the negotiations. Uranium exploration increased in 2011, however, according to domestic news reports.

And then there’s China, the country with the most ambitious plans to expand both nuclear and alternative forms of energy.

“After Fukushima there were some media reports but no real public debate. Nuclear power is not on the agenda of civil society [nationally],” said Tao Fu, a civil-society movement researcher and editor of the journal China Development Brief.

Shuling Cheng, a project officer at the environmental organization Blue Dalian in eastern China, said her group has begun to focus on the issue but faces difficulty. “There’s almost no information, human resources, or money. The government is very sensitive about the issue,” she says.

So far, activists across the region haven’t been able to make their biggest case effectively.

“For now, Asian governments can continue to ignore calls by anti-nuclear power activists because their size remains tolerable,” said Christopher Len, a research fellow at Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy. “Asian governments will only reduce their reliance on nuclear power if they can be convinced there are viable alternative energy sources that can be implemented at the industrial level and within reasonable costs.”

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