The weekly antinuclear power rallies are still being staged outside the prime minister’s office, as evidenced by a gathering of some 3,000 people one recent cold February evening, but the crowds are getting smaller.
Part of this decline may be because two years have passed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster started. Another factor may be that the Liberal Democratic Party — the very promoter of nuclear energy over the past half-century — returned to power at the end of last year.
The demonstrations, organized by the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, a body made up of 13 groups as well as individual members, have been held every Friday in Nagata-cho since late last March, when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power and seemed receptive to calls to end nuclear power.
The movement that originally attracted 300 people grew drastically to draw some 200,000 participants of all ages within three months as the DPJ-led government moved toward restarting two reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, coalition members said.
The reactors were eventually restarted in July and are currently the only ones running among 50 commercial reactors whose operations were suspended amid safety concerns in light of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant meltdowns.
Although the protests failed to prevent the restart of the Oi reactors, Takako Tohara, a coalition member in charge of public relations, said she felt the movement was being heard when group members managed to hold direct talks in August with then-DPJ Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
“It made us realize the impact of our action,” Tohara said. “Mr. Noda’s mentioning phasing out nuclear reactors by the 2030s was a testament.”
In September, Noda’s government worked out a new energy strategy that included phasing out nuclear power by the 2030s. But the LDP, which trounced the DPJ in December’s Lower House election and returned to rule after three years in opposition, plans to rethink the energy plan.
LDP Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in his policy speech to the Diet in late February that idled reactors will be restarted once their safety has been confirmed in order to ensure stable electricity supply and reduce energy costs. His remarks came despite public safety concerns, but amid calls from industries threatening to relocate if they cannot have access to cheap electricity, such as that from reactors.
Misao Redwolf, spokesman for the antinuclear coalition, said the current voting system for national elections fails to reflect public sentiment, as less than a quarter of the entire voting population cast ballots for the LDP in December’s general election but that still gave the party a majority in the Lower House.
In terms of the number of votes in the single-seat constituencies, the LDP garnered less than it did during the previous general election in 2009, when it lost to the DPJ.
“Ballots were cast to oust the DPJ rather than in support of the LDP, so it does not mean the number of antinuclear citizens dropped,” Redwolf said.
At an iconic site of the antinuclear movement, about a 10-minute walk from the prime minister’s office, Miyoko Watanabe, who had to evacuate from her home due to the nuclear disaster, spoke in front of a camera about the time Fukushima No. 1 started operating in the early 1970s.
“Everyone was happy with the good income source in the poor rural area, saying it is clean energy and there was no need to fear radiation. No one could raise their voice then,” Watanabe, 73, who still lives in Fukushima Prefecture, said at “Tent Square,” a makeshift gathering place set up by activists just outside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on Sept. 11, 2011, exactly six months after the megadisaster triggered the nuclear crisis.
Last September, activists there began airing live programs every Friday afternoon on the online Ustream channel, sending out messages including the voices of people from Fukushima Prefecture, where more than 150,000 residents still cannot return home.
During one such session, Yasunari Fujimoto of the Japan Congress Against A- and H-Bombs noted that nuclear power proponents who fomented concerns over winter and summer electricity supply shortages last year amid the suspension of most reactors are now warning that the lack of nuclear power will cause rises in electricity prices.
“It costs more to promote nuclear power than to develop renewable energy. We have to keep people informed of these facts,” he said.
When the tent city was launched, about 1,000 people, many in their 20s and 30s, gathered daily from around the country to express their objections to METI’s efforts to restart nuclear plants without thorough investigations into why Fukushima No. 1 occurred. Some waged 10-day hunger strikes.
“The movement served as a catalyst for young people to take action back home,” said Takehiko Yagi, a spokesman for Tent Square.
Some of the original participants staged sit-ins at the Oi plant last July to try to prevent the reactor restarts. Others continue to confront other issues, including the disposal of radiation-contaminated debris that is being carried out in various parts of Japan.