More than six decades after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has been the site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. The country therefore finds itself in a unique situation—it has experienced the catastrophic impact of nuclear technology both for peaceful means and as an instrument of war.
But while Japan has witnessed large-scale protests against nuclear arms in past decades, opposition to nuclear power has remained limited. Instead, the Japanese government has depended on nuclear power as one of its main sources of energy, and it ranks amongst the world’s largest producers of nuclear electricity.
The Fukushima nuclear accident in March, meanwhile, has led to an intensification of anti-nuclear opposition worldwide. In Germany, more than 200,000 people took to the streets, dwarfing the April demonstrations in Tokyo with an estimated 17,000 participants.
To many observers, the comparatively small number of protesters in Japan appears surprising. Yet there are a number of reasons for the limited public outcry in Japan. First, in light of the catastrophic events and large-scale destruction caused by the earthquake and the tsunami, the Japanese people remain primarily concerned with rebuilding and processing events. Right now, opposition to nuclear energy just doesn’t yet appear to be a widespread key interest.
Second, unlike many countries in Europe and North America, Japan doesn’t have a long tradition regarding anti-nuclear power movements. Instead, opposition has centred mainly around a few organizations such as Tanpoposya and the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Centre, as well as local citizens protesting the construction of plants in their vicinity. In January this year, for example, a dozen protesters held a hunger strike in Yamaguchi City to contest plans for the Kaminoseki nuclear power plant.
But such actions are similar to the origins of nuclear opposition in the United States, where plans for the first commercial nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay, northwest of San Francisco, were heavily disputed. It wasn’t until the 1960s that local opposition formed into national movements in countries such as the United States, Germany and France.
The movements gained further momentum with the accidents on Three Mile Island (1979) and in Chernobyl (1986), combined with a general increase in environmental awareness. To many, these incidents demonstrated that the peaceful use of nuclear technology may unintentionally bear a risk not too dissimilar to that of arms.
The Chernobyl incident and its enduring environmental impact suggest that it may particularly be the long-term consequences of such nuclear incidents that fuel protests. In Germany, for example, the radioactive cloud of Chernobyl has left forest areas in the southern part of the country contaminated with caesium. Wild boars, due to their preferences for truffle, as well as certain types of mushrooms, remain highly contaminated. While large quantities of these foods have to be consumed before health complications would arise, they are a constant reminder of the lasting impact of nuclear accidents.
Right now, Japan has only experienced the immediate aftermath of Fukushima. But already following the detection of relatively high levels of radioactivity in some agricultural produce, food contamination is becoming a real concern. In addition, citing safety concerns, Prime Minister Naoto Kan also announced the closure of the Hamaoka nuclear plant, west of Tokyo. And, perhaps most surprising of all, was the statement Kan made on Tuesday that the government would drop plans for the construction of more than a dozen new reactors.
While the future has yet to be written, the incidents in Fukushima are, in the long-term, likely to lead to two core changes in Japan: first, the establishment of a wider anti-nuclear power movement and second, to a (forced) review of the country’s nuclear energy policy.
This week’s developments imply that the debate surrounding a shift towards alternative and renewable energy sources has already commenced. For Japan, the myth of safe nuclear power has been irreparably damaged.