Japanese Government’s Effort to Reboot Nuclear Energy Meets Resistance

The atmosphere in the packed meeting room is tense. It is a Wednesday night in November, and perhaps a hundred people have gathered at a community center in the city of Minamisoma, which begins about six miles north of the decimated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. At the front of the room sits a phalanx of government officials in dark suits. Facing them are men and women who were forced from their homes in Minamisoma’s Odaka district by nuclear fallout, and who are now being told they might be allowed back by spring. The question on the table is whether that move is premature. Twenty minutes into the discussion, the deep divide between the officials and the residents is clear.

An older man raises his hand. “There’s a tombstone behind my house where the radiation measures 10.5 microsieverts per hour. 10.5!” he says.

Multiplied over a year, the figure is 4.6 times the standard Japan’s government has set for mandatory evacuation, and 92 times the limit the International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends for the general population under normal circumstances. It is also far higher than most measurements taken recently in Odaka, where a massive government-sponsored cleanup — together with natural decay — is steadily lowering radiation levels.

“It’s probably a hotspot,” an environment ministry official says. “We can take care of it for you.”

“I asked the government for data about that spot in August, but I haven’t gotten anything. Why not?” the resident demands.

A woman in the audience shouts out: “Because they’re liars!”

“We think you’re afraid to give us the real data,” the man says.

Another resident speaks up: “The forest surrounding my house has not been decontaminated. Would you live in a place like that? I beg of you, please delay the resettlement!” Applause breaks out in the audience.

I kneel at the back of the crowd, surprised by the depth of the anger and skepticism coursing through the room. The normal tone of public space in Japan is deferential courtesy. That ordinary residents of a provincial town are willing to challenge officials so openly reflects a profound shift brought about by the nuclear disaster.

Simply put, far fewer people trust the government today than they did five years ago. The immediate cause of the disaster was an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 that deprived the coastal Fukushima plant of its power supply, and hence of its ability to keep reactors and spent fuel cool. A series of explosions and meltdowns followed, which led to the eventual evacuation of 164,000 people. Subsequent investigations soon revealed, however, that poor oversight and cozy ties between government, industry, and academia (the so-called “nuclear village”) laid the groundwork for the disaster. The public also learned that the government bungled the evacuation, causing thousands of people to suffer more radiation exposure than they otherwise would have.

Since then, resistance has extended deep roots. The clearest evidence of that is here in Fukushima, where residents like the ones in this room are fighting to make sure their rights are respected. But far beyond these borders as well, communities are embracing renewable energy and citizens are protesting government abuses of power more loudly than they have in decades. The question that remains after I slip out into the cool night air is how much that resistance is changing policy and politics in Japan.

At times, the answer seems to be: very little. The same political party that enabled the Fukushima disaster through half a century of pro-nuclear policy is back in power, three nuclear reactors are running again despite safety concerns, one more is about to restart, and 20 more are awaiting approval. Meanwhile, Japan played only a minor role at the Paris climate talks in November, and is pouring money into coal plants to compensate for its idled nuclear fleet. In Fukushima, the government remains intent on repopulating the 310-square-mile exclusion zone as quickly as possible.

I have come to Japan on the eve of the disaster’s fifth anniversary to try to make sense of these changes — to weigh hope against cynicism, transformation against retrenchment. What happens here matters globally. Japan is the world’s fifth largest carbon dioxide emitter, is the number-one importer of liquefied natural gas and number-two importer of coal, and a leading exporter of nuclear and “clean coal” technologies. Its domestic energy choices clearly affect the world’s efforts to tackle climate change. But my motivation is also personal. I was living in Japan when the disaster occurred. I witnessed firsthand both its devastating aftermath and the sense of hope for a more sustainable and democratic future that sprang up in its wake. I want to know the fate of that hope.

My host in Minamisoma is a retired postman and lifelong activist from Odaka named Tomio Kokubun. He began protesting nuclear power when he was 20 years old and a new plant — Fukushima Daiichi — was proposed south of his home. Back then, his anti-nuclear activism placed him on the fringe of a community eager to benefit from the jobs the plant brought to the region. Today, he tells me with just a hint of vindication, his neighbors concede he was right to worry.

I first met Kokubun in 2013 in the snowy mountains west of Fukushima City, where he and his family had been living since they fled the coast after the first explosion at the plant. It was clear that two years of displacement had taken their toll. Kokubun’s ailing mother-in-law and sister-in-law died after a series of evacuation-related moves, and his wife Mieko told me she felt isolated and unhappy in her new surroundings. His grown son, too, talked about how much he wanted his old life back.

Kokubun alone seemed galvanized by the chain of events. He had founded a sprawling association of evacuees and supporters, and was traveling regularly to speak against nuclear power. He was also deeply involved in a class-action lawsuit to gain more compensation from Tepco, the plant operator, for damages caused by the accident. (By 2015, over 10,000 evacuees and nearby residents had filed similar claims.) The stricter safety rules for nuclear plants that the government implemented later that year — including more rigorous backup power requirements — did not placate him. To the contrary, the disaster and its aftermath proved what he had always suspected — that any man-made system contains the potential for failure, and in the case of nuclear power, failure is catastrophic.

Now, two years later, Kokubun was back in Minamisoma, and I had arranged to meet him there the morning of the community meeting. As I looked around the clean, quiet bus stop, I caught sight of him grinning and waving at me from across the street. He was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, his snow-white hair poking out from under a tweed hat.

“We’re doing well,” he told me as I climbed into his car. He and Mieko had finally pulled together enough money to start building a new house farther north. In the meantime, they are living in a house in a part of their hometown that was only briefly evacuated. One reason for this move was Mieko’s worsening depression, which Kokubun told me had eased now that she was on familiar ground. The other reason was political.

“I felt strongly that I needed to expand my activism, and I thought if I came back here more people would sympathize with my message,” he said. In July of last year he launched a local organization focused on radiation safety, which so far has attracted around 100 members.

We headed into Odaka where Kokubun’s abandoned house is located. The cleanup was in full swing. Industrious men in masks power-washed sidewalks, dump trucks crowded the streets, and orange placards marked houses for demolition. Everywhere we went we saw squat black bags stuffed with tainted dirt and debris. (Almost 10 million of these bags litter Fukushima, awaiting transportation to a mid-term storage site near Fukushima Daiichi.)

At the community meeting later that night, the mayor of Odaka insisted that all this work was meant only to ensure displaced residents could return if they wanted to — not to force them back.

The dilemma, of course, is that contamination cannot be completely removed from the environment. It will linger in forests and ponds and backyard corners for decades to come, exposing anyone who returns to low but persistent levels of radiation. Science provides no clear answers regarding the potential health risks of that exposure. Above 100 millisieverts (mSv) cancer rates clearly rise; below that level, they may also rise slightly, but the increase is extremely hard to detect in population-level studies.

Following the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s government used the lack of scientific consensus on low-level radiation impacts to justify raising the acceptable level of exposure for the general population from 1 mSv to 20 mSv per year above background levels. (The International Commission on Radiological Protection’s recommended maximum exposure for the general population is 1 mSv under normal circumstances and between 1 mSv and 20 mSv after a nuclear accident.) The decision was, in effect, a pragmatic one. If the government had stuck with the 1 mSv limit, it would have had to evacuate far more people and establish a large, long-term exclusion zone similar to the one around Chernobyl. With the higher limit, bringing nuclear refugees back home became a possibility.

But why the fixation on return? Is it merely that Japan is small, land is precious, and people’s attachment to place fierce? As we drove through the strange landscape of black bags and masked men, Kokubun told me he believes otherwise. “The government is doing this to regain support for nuclear power,” he said. The logic is that if even Fukushima can be “fixed,” people will stop fearing the reopening and operation of other plants.

Kokubun’s response has been to do whatever he can to prevent the illusion of normalcy from seeping in — from dragging Tepco through court to lecturing nationwide about the situation on the ground to hosting visitors who want to see the exclusion zone for themselves. That he is 70 and has been fighting the same fight for 50 years appears not to bother him.

“Right now, the old have to protect the young,” he told me. “We’re the ones who accepted the nuclear plants, who allowed them to be built. The real responsibility lies with us.”

“Do you ever feel like giving up?” I asked.

“I will never give up,” he replied, almost cheerfully. “I will never accept nuclear power.”

A majority of Japanese now share Kokubun’s opinion. Over 70 percent of respondents in recent polls say they want to phase out nuclear power, and 8.5 million have signed a petition calling for renewable energy to replace reactors. Anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo drew hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens at their peak in 2012. When the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — which briefly held power before and after the disaster — asked for public input on its energy and environment policy in 2012, a record-breaking 89,000 people sent in comments, close to 90 percent of them opposing nuclear power.

The relationship between this surge in anti-nuclear sentiment and Japan’s broader energy policy is complex. The Fukushima disaster occurred just as global concern over climate change was accelerating. In 2009, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had committed Japan to lowering carbon emissions a quarter below 1990 levels by 2020 — largely through a plan to increase nuclear power to half of the country’s electricity mix. The meltdowns changed everything.

“With the 3-11 disaster, everyone’s attention turned toward nuclear power. Since then, climate change has fallen more and more off the public’s radar as an important issue,” Takako Momoi told me when I stopped by the Tokyo office of Kiko Network, Japan’s biggest homegrown climate-change NGO, where she works as a manager. A minority of activists even began to spread the message that climate change was a ruse to gain support for nuclear power. In 2013, when the new government traded Hatoyama’s ambitious emissions goal for a 3 percent increase over 1990 levels by 2020, few people protested.

Coal has already seen a major resurgence. Construction of coal-fired power plants had stalled around 2009 due to climate change concerns, but now 48 new plants are planned or under construction, says Momoi. Even with much-touted new “clean coal” technology, she adds, these plants will emit as much carbon dioxide as those that burn oil.

Then there is the fact that even if the public prefers renewables to coal or nuclear, most people still prioritize the economy over the environment in elections. In 2012, voters ousted the DPJ in favor of the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has monopolized power for most of Japan’s post-war period. The LDP quickly set about formulating its own energy vision. It tossed out the public comments the DPJ had collected, kicked anti-nuclear advisors like those from Momoi’s organization off policy committees, and last summer finalized a long-term energy vision that calls for electricity to come from roughly equal parts nuclear, liquid natural gas, coal, and renewable sources by 2030.

At the local level, however, a more ambitious vision has started to emerge. Many communities are formulating their own renewable energy plans — Minamisoma among them. This March, the city of 63,000 released a “Non-Nuclear Power Declaration” reaffirming an earlier pledge to generate 65 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and 100 percent by 2030 (compared to around 10 percent today). Construction is slated to begin this year on a solar farm large enough to power almost all of the city’s households, and four windmills are planned as well. A generous national feed-in tariff program introduced in 2012, which guarantees high prices to individuals and companies selling renewable energy to the grid, has lured corporate investors to these projects.

That, together with some smaller subsidy programs, should get the city to its 2020 goal, says Shunichi Shiga, who heads Minamisoma’s newly-established renewable energy division. Reaching 100 percent could be tougher. Power distributors say they’ve already reached the limit of how much renewable energy they can incorporate without major improvements to the grid, and now that the feed-in-tariffs are being ratcheted down, investing in renewable energy is looking riskier. Overcoming these obstacles, Shiga says, will require action at the national level. Momoi concurs. “The [local] movement to increase renewable energy is great, but within the current policy context, it will hit a ceiling,” she says. “There’s a need to think more about the big picture.”

Many people are, in fact, starting to think about what it will take to achieve true change at the national level. One of the most interesting developments set off by the disaster has been the emergence of a strong student movement protesting the government’s disregard for democratic processes. Although its focus is on military policy rather than energy issues, the underlying concern is the same.

Called Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, or SEALDs, this small but vocal group of high school and university students coalesced in mid-2015 against a set of security bills that the LDP ultimately pushed through the Diet (Japanese parliament) in September. Using social media and protests outside the Diet building featuring fierce, smart speeches, the students quickly engaged a broader slice of society than old-school protesters had been able to. It was the most significant student movement since the 1960s.

Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University says SEALDs is a “direct descendant” of the civil-society awakening that followed the nuclear disaster. “They were high school students at the time [of the meltdowns], and for many of them the first experience of protest was those anti-nuclear rallies,” he tells me. “The disaster exposed the myth that was more credible in earlier times about the trustworthiness of ruling elites in Japan.”

Nakano is himself active in an organization opposing the security bills, and has collaborated closely with SEALDs over the past year. He too sees the roots of the nuclear and military issues as intimately linked. “There’s a sense that the 1 percent increasingly control our fate and the 99 percent of us are left out in the dark, uninformed and practically disenfranchised,” he says. “In the case of the security bills, it’s about the ruling elites of Japan in collusion with the American elites changing the interpretation of the constitution to allow Japan to take part in America’s wars even without Japan being attacked. The nuclear power issue is very similar because nuclear power is something that those big powers need to continue on for lucrative reasons. They wouldn’t want to see Japan dropping out from the nuclear power club.”

In spite of this, Nakano believes citizen activists have changed the government’s course, at least on energy. “There was a long period in which even [Prime Minister] Abe couldn’t restart the nuclear reactors. That has only to do with the strength of the opposition,” he tells me. “We are talking about ordinary citizens, without resources, stopping the reactors for many, many months.”

As important as these popular movements may be, the people who will determine Japan’s longer-term energy path are not in the crowds outside the Diet, or even inside its halls. They are in elementary and middle school classrooms across the country. Japan’s education system played a key role in creating the so-called “myth of nuclear safety” — the widespread belief that Japan’s reactors were indestructible — that led towards poor oversight and, ultimately, disaster. Likewise, the lessons children learn now about the Fukushima disaster will shape their views on energy and the environment throughout their lives. So, on my last day in Japan, I take the train back to Fukushima to talk with a professor who has spent the past five years trying to improve radiation education.

Shinobu Goto is a tall, serious man in his forties who teaches environmental education at Fukushima University. We meet on a Saturday evening in a cluttered university office, where we are joined by two members of the Fukushima teachers’ union, Toshiki Kokubun (no relation to Tomio) and Hiroshi Sato, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. All three were deeply impacted by the disaster.

Goto in particular says the unexpected catastrophe thrust him into a period of intense reflection and regret. He had not previously focused on nuclear education, but now he began to scour official teaching materials on the topic for evidence of bias. He found plenty: elementary-level readers titled Exciting Nuclear Power Land, illustrations of frowning coal plants juxtaposed with friendly nuclear reactors, claims that Japan’s reactors could withstand large earthquakes and tsunamis. Goto was not alone in his critique. The minister of education himself admitted that the pre-disaster texts contained information “contrary to reality,” and soon had them replaced.

Yet the new radiation readers that the ministry published in late 2011 were hardly an improvement. They included just 8 lines about the Fukushima disaster, and instead emphasized how useful and ubiquitous radiation is in daily life. In this, Goto saw the makings of a new myth — not that reactors are infallible, but that the radiation they emit when they do fail is nothing to worry about.

“The concept that the level of radiation we have in Fukushima is safe is being steadily created through education and PR,” he tells me as we sip tea in the quiet research building. He was particularly worried that kids weren’t getting the information they needed to protect their own rights to physical, mental, and social wellbeing. “If you don’t know the exposure limit is 1 or 5 mSv per year in other places, you don’t realize the situation in Fukushima is abnormal,” he says. “Education is empowerment in the sense that it allows you to make those critiques.”

Teachers needed a better option, so in early 2012 he assembled a group of 16 Fukushima University professors, and together they wrote an alternative reader from a human-rights perspective. He also began holding workshops to teach critical thinking skills to public school students, so they could assess government and media claims on their own. At this point, top-level administrators began pressuring him to tone down his activism. The school is the only national university in the prefecture; from the start, its administrators had echoed the government’s emphasis on recovery over risk.

“They told me I had to put a sticker on the reader saying it wasn’t an official publication of the university. I said that’s discriminatory; you don’t do that for other publications,” Goto says. (University representatives tell me they are unable to confirm or deny Goto’s claims, citing personnel changes and a lack of relevant meeting minutes.)

He refused to back down. Ultimately, the reader was published without the sticker, helping to turn national attention on the official curriculum. That attention reverberated to the ministry of education; when the official readers were revised again in 2014, they included more information on the Fukushima disaster, and an acknowledgement that scientists hold “various views” on the impacts of low-level radiation. Still, a startling array of terms were missing: “meltdown,” “Nuclear Accident Child Victim’s Law,” “hotspot,” “thyroid cancer,” and “radioactive waste” among them.

Kokubun and Sato say most teachers in Fukushima don’t venture beyond the official curriculum, which allots just two hours a year for radiation education, partly because they are too busy, and partly because they’re pressured not to.

Sato, an elementary school teacher in Fukushima City, has experienced this pressure directly. “Some high-level board-of-education staff observed one of my classes [on radiation in 2013], and afterwards they said to me, Don’t you think today’s class might worry the children?” The content was purely science based: Sato had shown the kids a graph of the relationship between radiation and cancer, and pointed out that high levels of exposure can be deadly. (In lessons, he also explains that the current degree of contamination in Fukushima City carries a relatively low risk of cancer.)

Fukushima’s Board of Education tells me later that teachers are permitted to share science-based radiation material as long as it is widely accepted. “Our goal,” a staff member writes in an email, “is to teach children to make appropriate decisions based on correct knowledge and understanding of radiation.” However, Sato says he’s been told to avoid the topic by his principal, vice-principal, and other teachers.

Like Goto, he has not bowed to this pressure. Yet both he and Kokubun seem worn down by their lonely struggle. The government defends its interests tenaciously, and the public — with the exception of a determined minority — is all too eager to assist by turning away from the painful past. “People need to be angrier,” Kokubun says. “I’m sad that more people haven’t spoken out with us.”

Outside Goto’s office, the sky is growing dark. Kokubun and Sato need to head home. After they leave, I ask Goto how much hope he has that things will change. He says he feels like he is gasping for breath. The pace of progress is slow, and public interest in the disaster’s ongoing impact is dwindling. Still, he says, he is determined to continue his work.

Later, after he drops me off at the train station, I leaf through some papers he has given me, among them an essay he wrote for his hometown newspaper concluding with the following lines: “They say that history is written by the victors. I will be watching and acting to make sure the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear accident are not written to suit the interests of the perpetrators of this unprecedented man-made disaster.”

In that, and in the commitment of many others to do the same, there lies a glimmer of hope.