Pressure builds in Japan's nuclear divide

Pressure builds in Japan's nuclear divide
By Daniel Leussink

TOKYO - Following the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant six months ago, nine prominent Japanese intellectuals have launched a popular movement that seeks to abolish nuclear power and the closure of all nuclear power plants in Japan.

The group, which includes Nobel literature prize laureate Kenzaburo Oe and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, plans to collect 10 million signatures in support of their proposal for a nuclear-free Japan. On Monday, the group organized a colorful demonstration followed by three vocal protest marches through Tokyo, attracting about 60,000 people.

The theme of the demonstration was "Sayonara genpatsu," "Goodbye nuclear power plants."

Satoshi Kamata is one of the intellectuals behind the movement. The 73-year-old author and freelance journalist covered Japan's

nuclear industry for over four decades, also publishing articles and books on Toyota and the citizens' movement against the construction of Narita airport, Japan's primary international airport. He was a speaker at the event on Monday.

Kamata spoke with Asia Times Online about the historical significance of the demonstration in a coffee shop near Kiyose station, a 25-minute train ride from central Tokyo, on Sunday. That was a day before the demonstration took place.

Asia Times Online: What are your expectations of tomorrow's demonstration?

Satoshi Kamata: Demonstrations in Japan are a little bit different from demonstrations in the United States or Europe, where hundreds of thousands protesters might protest against nuclear energy. In Japan, nationwide demonstrations attracted 10,000 or 20,000 protesters in total so far. This time, we hope 50,000 protesters will come.

We are collecting 10 million signatures against nuclear energy and have invited many well-known writers and thinkers to take part in this protest. There are around 100 supporting figures including Yoji Yamada [a famous filmmaker) and Masazumi Harada [a doctor known for his treatment of sufferers from the industrial Minamata disease] who back our movement in addition to the nine of us who called out publicly.

On March 24 next year, we will hold a follow-up rally in Hibiya Park. That rally will be held to present the 10-million signature petition against nuclear energy to the national government. We'll also hold other demonstrations and cultural events, such as concerts, before then.

ATol: What are the main issues against which the demonstration is directed?

SK: Japan should stop the nuclear power plants it already has, refrain from building new plants and shift to renewable energy. Earlier this year, [then prime minister Naoto] Kan decided that the Hamaoka nuclear power plant [in Shizuoka prefecture] would be stopped. But all nuclear plants should be stopped.

And if this happens, the order through which it happens is very important because there are many types of nuclear power plants and some plants are older than others. The Monju fast breeder reactor [a temporarily-suspended MOX fuel plant in Fukui prefecture] and the Rokkasho reprocessing plant [in Aomori prefecture, undergoing test operations] should be disabled.

The government should make a schedule to decide the month and year by which nuclear power plants will be stopped.

ATol: Could you indicate some of the crucial issues that nuclear energy in Japan faces at this stage, half a year after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Tohoku?

SK: The new government of [Prime Minister Yoshihiko] Noda said that the nuclear power plants will be restarted after conducting safety checks on them.

But in August, only 12 out of 54 reactors were running normally. All of them will go offline for regular maintenance checks before May next year. If the current situation continues, all nuclear reactors in Japan may be offline before then. [Before the Fukushima accident, Japan depended on nuclear for about a third of its power supply, but the government has now abandoned plans to increase that to 50%.]

Eighty percent of the Japanese public opposes nuclear energy. The people will have to raise their voice in order to stop the operation of these nuclear power plants.

ATol: Some critics say that Japan would face a severe energy shortage if every reactor in each nuclear power plant will be stopped. What are your thoughts on this?

SK: Only 12 out of 54 reactors are operating normally at the moment, 42 reactors are not running. But Japan has avoided an energy shortage so far.

In addition to that, Japan has a reserve of thermal power plants and other types of plants such as natural gas plants and coal plants. These could provide a solution for the time being, as long as the move to renewable energy will go faster, even if it is only a little bit. But the government and power companies have not invested enough in renewable energy so far.

A crucial point will be to find out if [outside] experts could become more involved in enlarging the role of renewable energy.

ATol: Shifting away from nuclear power completely might also lead to higher electricity rates?

SK: If electricity becomes a little bit more expensive there is nothing we can do about it. But if nuclear power plants continue to be operated like they are operated now, radioactive nuclear waste will be created and the problem of what to do with that will be thrown on future generations. The moral problem is whether that is good or not.

If you only think about cheap energy, radioactive waste will gradually build up. The question is whether or not that should be allowed.

ATol: How did Japan historically come to rely on nuclear energy as the only nation on earth to suffer atomic bomb attacks?

SK: The nuclear energy policy started under the influence of [then minister of Science] Yasuhiro Nakasone after he returned from the United States in around 1960. [Nakasone served as prime minister from 1982-1987.] After the introduction of technology, the government came to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and made it look very different from the atomic bomb. It was viewed as a clean energy. A bright image of prosperity was promoted with it.

The atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki never came together with those who opposed nuclear energy. But that changed as a result of the disaster in Fukushima. The suffering from the atomic bombs and the development of nuclear power were two things that were opposed until now.

ATol: What is your view of the nuclear energy industry?

SK: The government promoted nuclear energy as a favorable thing and local communities received financial benefits for accepting nuclear power plants.

The nuclear industry is like the big bad wolf from the fairy tale. [Little Red Riding Hood] Grandma won't open the door to let him in the house. But when she looks under it, she thinks it is not the wolf but her granddaughter. So she opens the door and the wolf eats her. The house is Japan and grandma the local communities.
It might be hard for foreigners to understand, but there is not a single organization in Japan that judges nuclear power objectively.
Eisaku Sato [former governor of Fukushima prefecture] said that police and the thieves are the same people. He was made into a scapegoat over illegal financial dealings of his brother's company. He gave up his post. I say that the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry [responsible for developing nuclear energy] and the Nuclear Safety Commission work together like the pitcher and umpire in baseball.

ATol: What is the long-term relevance of the demonstration of September 19?

SK: There won't be the same number of protesters as at demonstrations opposing nuclear energy in Germany or France, but it is a start. For Japanese citizens, it is very uncommon to express their private views in public. Many citizens are hesitant to comment on politics openly. And we don't have a history of demonstrations, so we have to build a new history of joining them. Tomorrow is a start.

When South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship, many citizens resisted it. Some of them were given the death penalty as a result of their resistance and of course that was not good. But eventually the actions of these protesters changed the government.

Daniel Leussink is a Dutch journalist in Tokyo. His website is www.danielleussink.com.

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