The Fukushima nuclear crisis struck a nerve with Japan’s normally passive public, prompting many to raise their voices against atomic power and take to the streets to voice their anger.
But momentum for phasing out atomic energy appears to have weakened since the pronuclear Liberal Democratic Party won December’s general election by a landslide, pledging to review the ousted Democratic Party of Japan’s vow to eliminate nuclear power in the 2030s.
While antinuclear activists and politicians are trying to find new ways of keeping their hopes alive, they are struggling to get their views reflected in the policies of the LDP-led administration.
These lobbyists say that since the majority of the public hasn’t changed its mind about the dangers of atomic energy, it is critical to take the antinuclear movement to the next level by drafting persuasive, concrete plans that can actually uproot the deeply ingrained nuclear industry.
“I am deeply worried” that the movement against atomic energy is fizzling out, said Susumu Shinbo, 65, of Chiba Prefecture while protesting at the weekly antinuclear rally by the prime minister’s office on April 12.
The rally was the 50th so far, but participation has clearly dropped. The organizers once claimed that more than 100,000 people showed up.
The protests burgeoned when the previous DPJ government decided to let Kansai Electric Power Co. restart two reactors at its Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture — the first to go online since all atomic units nationwide were idled after the Fukushima meltdowns tainted the northeast with radiation.
Around the time of the July 2012 restarts, tens of thousands of protesters had inundated the street leading to the prime minister’s office for weeks. But last month’s rally saw less than 1,000 people show up — barely enough to fill the sidewalks.
Some of those present argued the figure is irrelevant.
“Less participation doesn’t mean momentum has weakened” because most of the public is still strongly opposed to the use of nuclear power, said 39-year-old Tokyoite Tomoko Kawai.
But with the LDP expected to push for a reversion to atomic power, she stressed that “it is important that individuals keep taking actions of their own.”
To avoid losing impetus, activists are looking beyond protests and devising new strategies. On April 15, they set up the Citizens’ Commission on Nuclear Energy to draft a zero-nuclear blueprint by next spring to propose to the government and public.
The panel of experts and general members of the public is headed by Harutoshi Funabashi, a Hosei University sociology professor. It also includes Kyushu University Vice President Hitoshi Yoshioka, who sat on the government’s Fukushima investigation panel, University of Tokyo professor emeritus Hiromitsu Ino and Masashi Goto, a former nuclear engineer at Toshiba Corp.
“Right after the crisis occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, it was like all the public felt guilty about the use of nuclear power and the cries against atomic energy were so loud and clear,” said Hiroyuki Kawai, who represents the commission’s main sponsor, a private group. But in the past two years, “it seems many have forgotten the terror of the Fukushima disaster.”
Kawai stressed that a convincing master plan is required to re-energize the movement. “We need to draft a policy that everyone will have no choice but to accept,” he said.
Lawmakers concerned about nuclear energy have apparently reached the same conclusion.
Tomoko Abe, who heads Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan), said the roots of nuclear power pervaded society because it was a key source of energy that became vital to sustaining the profitability of regional utilities and the municipalities hosting their atomic plants.
It won’t be easy to unravel this nexus of nuclear interests, Abe said.
“There is a huge gap between people’s desire to end Japan’s nuclear dependency and how difficult (that) is in reality,” said Abe, who jointly heads a multiparty group of Diet lawmakers targeting nuclear power.
Abe said her group is examining the best way to phase out nuclear, including bills to decommission reactors and support their host communities. But how that legislation will get passed is unclear at a time when the LDP and junior coalition partner New Komeito have a solid grip on the Lower House and are gunning for the Upper House in July.
Abe’s 96-member group was cut in half by the House of Representatives election. It has since regained 10, bringing it back up to 58, but is having difficulty persuading more to join.
“Because the LDP has grown so powerful, it is very difficult (to promote a zero-nuclear policy) through cross-party efforts,” said coleader Shoichi Kondo.
Although the House of Councilors poll presents a chance for the antinuclear lobby to make a comeback, Kondo said it will be hard to turn the issue into a focal point because the LDP seems to be trying to sidestep it.
For instance, in the April 28 Upper House by-election in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where Chugoku Electric Power Co. plans to build a new nuclear plant in Kaminoseki, LDP candidate Kiyoshi Ejima fudged his stance on the project. Kondo claimed this prevented atomic energy from becoming an issue in the race, allowing Ejima to trounce his antinuclear opponents.
“The LDP is avoiding the issue of nuclear power policy for this summer’s Upper House election. They said they will review the DPJ’s policy (of ending nuclear power by 2040), but didn’t say if they will promote nuclear power, so it’s very vague,” he said.
To increase the number of politicians backing the zero-nuclear option, activists launched the advocacy group Ryokucha Kai (Green Tea Party) on April 24 to provide financial support to antinuclear candidates running in national elections.
Hideaki Takemura, an executive at Tokyo-based Energy Green Co. and head of Ryokucha Kai, voiced confidence that nuclear power can become a core topic in the House of Councilors poll, along with constitutional revision and the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade framework.
“The Fukushima crisis is an ongoing issue — people know that in their hearts, so they need to be more informed,” Takemura said.
Ryokucha Kai will soon select candidates to endorse for the Upper House election and offer them financial support, Takemura said, but it won’t be backing anyone running for the LDP or New Komeito.