Former nuclear power worker, 92, keeps up fight against planned Yamaguchi plant



Based on his own experience working in the nuclear power industry, Ichio Isobe, 92, is gravely concerned by moves to reactivate Japan’s idled reactors.

“Given its small national land, people won’t have a place to live if an accident like the (March 2011) Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant occurs again,” said Isobe, a stern opponent of a proposal to build a nuclear plant on the Inland Sea coast in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Isobe lives on Iwai Island, a small island off that coast.

In 1982, Chugoku Electric Power Co. proposed building a nuclear power plant on the coast in Kaminoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, 3.5 km from Iwai Island. The sea between the planned construction site and the island is a very fertile fishing ground.

After returning to Japan in December 1945 from World War II, Isobe worked at various times in a coal mine, a thermal power plant and at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, where in 2011 the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl occurred.

From late 1978 to early 1979, Isobe worked for a subcontractor at the Fukushima plant. He remembers how carefully workers needed to dress to avoid exposure to radiation.

“I wore three pairs of gloves — a pair of cloth gloves, then a pair of rubber gloves sealed around the wrists with adhesive tape, and on top of those, an additional pair of rubber gloves,” he recalled.

On his last day of work there, a foreign object was found at the bottom of a pump and Isobe was ordered by the foreman to wipe it off with a rag.

Isobe hesitated because the pump contained highly radioactive material. And when Isobe, prompted by the foreman, cleaned the bottom of the pump, a radiation alarm sounded.

He would later learn about the danger of nuclear power generation from the likes of Jinzaburo Takagi, an author who wrote about the threat of nuclear waste, and well-known anti-nuclear activist Yuko Fujita, an assistant professor at Keio University, who were among experts who visited Iwai.

While most members of the Kaminoseki town assembly were in favor of the construction plan, opposition began to grow among island residents.

Isobe and others who had worked at nuclear plants mounted a campaign to oppose the plan, visiting local households to warn that the atomic plant could destroy life on the island.

Iwai is home to many people who have worked at atomic power plants, because the scarcity of arable land forced many residents to seek work elsewhere.

Groups of local women also walked around the island to voice their opposition, while fishermen staged sit-ins and seaborne protests.

Preparatory construction work for the Kaminoseki plant began in 2009, but due to the strong local opposition was stopped. Since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, construction has remained stalled.

Isobe said seven people he knew who had worked at nuclear plants had died of cancer, and Isobe himself has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. “But I feel I’m lucky as I have lived this long,” he said.