In the wake of simultaneous meltdowns in three nuclear reactors at Fukushima, a first in nuclear power history, public anger and anxiety rose quickly in Japan.
The national government ordered residents of Fukushima Prefecture within twenty kilometers of the nuclear station to evacuate. In some areas, even forty kilometers from the plant, residents had to evacuate due to high levels of radiation. Residents living in the vicinity of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant had always been led to believe that the facilities were completely safe. They never dreamed that they would be forced to flee the land where they had built farms, factories, homes, and lives.
A month after the Fukushima crisis began, I met a group of evacuees from the town of Futaba at an evacuation center in Saitama Prefecture near Tokyo. Every one of them told me, “If I could go home today, I would.” Their town sits near the nuclear plant and is highly contaminated. Meanwhile, the Japanese government and the power company were refusing to report publicly the levels of contamination found in the soil of that town.
At the end of August, almost six months after the accident, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology finally released a map showing concentrations of radioactive cesium in the soil within a 100-kilometer radius from the nuclear plant. The residents’ desperate hopes of returning to their homes in Futaba and Okuma have been cruelly dashed. When these people are told that they might be able to go home in twenty or thirty years, they hear, “Give it up. You are never going home.”
If you include families with small children and other voluntary evacuees, about 70,000 people are now living away from their homes. They are profoundly worried about their internal and external exposure to radioactive fallout. Those who remain in Fukushima Prefecture are also frightened. The potential damage to human bodies from invisible radiation is now a growing concern among millions.
In October, the release of radiation from the plant was still continuing. Radioactive contamination has spread across a vast area of farmland, forests, and sea. Rice, vegetables, milk, fruits, and flowers have all been contaminated or are not being allowed to grow.
Japan has long had an anti-nuclear power movement, especially among residents near the sites selected for nuclear power plants. And yet, the voices of caution have never been strong enough to affect Japan’s nuclear energy policy, as millions of Japanese—including many A-bomb survivors (hibakusha)—fell for the propaganda about “the peaceful atom.”
Less than one year after the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum opened its doors in August 1955, the museum held a large-scale exhibition on nuclear energy. Lasting about three weeks, it was dubbed the “Exhibition for Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy.” The U.S. Embassy in Japan provided approximately $1.3 million to help display such items as a full-size model nuclear reactor. In deference to U.S. wishes, throughout the run of this exhibition, items normally on display that showed the destruction caused by the atomic bombing were temporarily removed to the Hiroshima Central Community Center.
This time, however, the accident itself had a tremendous impact on not only public attitudes, but also public policy. Not long after the accident exploded the myth of perfect safety, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan stated that he would seek to “create a society that is not dependent on nuclear power.” Though he mentioned no specific measures or timetable for accomplishing this goal, his comment represented a dramatic change and pointed in the right direction.
And among the citizens, voices against nuclear power have grown louder. At its annual meeting in Tokyo this past June, the Japan Confederation of A- and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations indicated that it would demand that the Japanese government move away from reliance on nuclear energy and would call for the decommissioning of the nuclear reactors that have been shut down. This stance goes far beyond the previous one of demanding “changes in Japan’s energy policy.”
The official peace declarations at the commemorative ceremonies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 this year asked the Japanese government and Japanese society to shift energy policy away from reliance on nuclear power and toward renewable energy sources. Peace declarations delivered in the past focused solely on appealing for world peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons. This year is the first time for both cities to express a view questioning the peaceful use of nuclear power.
Also on August 6, citizen rallies against nuclear power—in addition to nuclear weapons—were held at various venues in Hiroshima.
Numerous citizen groups throughout Japan are now daily engaged in a wide range of activities to oppose nuclear power plants. Women, with their strong concern for the health of their children, have been especially active. Nongovernmental organizations are planning to hold a “Global Conference for a Nuclear Power-Free World” in Yokohama in January.
On September 19 in Tokyo, about 60,000 people, including refugees from Fukushima Prefecture, held a rally called Goodbye Nuclear Power Plants. Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe and eight other prominent figures initiated this rally, at which Oe declared, “Nuclear power is always accompanied by ruin and sacrifice.” Continuing the use of nuclear power plants heralds a crisis for the nation, he said, urging those in attendance to press the political and business establishment to turn away from nuclear power by engaging in further rallies and demonstrations. “We must have the will to oppose it,” he said.
Oe and his colleagues have been promoting a petition drive, hoping to gather ten million signatures in support of eliminating nuclear power. They plan to submit these signatures to the Japanese administration and parliament next March.
Akira Tashiro is an award-winning senior staff writer for the Chugoku Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper based in Hiroshima. He is co-author of “Exposure: Victims of Radiation Speak Out,” still the most thorough description of the plight of radiation victims around the world. His exploration of the nature and meaning of the nuclear age in “Nuclear Age: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” won him the 1996 Vaughn-Ueda Prize, the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer.