Last July about 170,000 people thronged an anti-nuke rally in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park to demand that Japan spurn nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. This year, in the two days leading up to the second anniversary of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that triggered the accident, demonstrations averaged perhaps one tenth that number. Ongoing weekly protests top out at 5,000 or so, with some events drawing only a few hundred protesters.
It’s not as if anyone has shrugged off “3/11.” The 2013 anniversary was marked by numerous remembrances of those killed in the catastrophe, and stories about the homelessness limbo many of the displaced still occupy. Anti-nuke activists, who include composer-musician Ryuichi Sakamoto (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, and novelist Kenzaburo Oe, are still very committed. And they still have a sizable public following. But nowadays, the clamor for moving away from nuclear power has softened.
“After the Fukushima disaster, people worried much about nuclear power, but it was bound to happen that they gradually forget [the fear],” says Hiroaki Koide, assistant professor at Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute. “Furthermore, the Japanese government has been trying to make the people forget, and the media now don't run reports as much as they used to do.”
And Japan’s limited energy alternatives are putting pressure on the country to restart the 50 or so reactors that it shut down two years ago. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new Liberal Democratic Party government doesn’t share the reformist zeal of its predecessor, led by Yoshihiro Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan. If the Abe administration had its way, the reactors would likely be online in time for this summer’s peak demand.
“They’re really waiting for the anti-nuclear sentiment to subside—and it’s working,” says Keiro Kitagami, a former parliamentary vice minister in the Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry during the Noda administration who had oversight of energy policy and decommissioning Fukushima.
The government, attacked by some disaster victims for a failure to communicate, isn’t talking much about its stance on the issue. An interview request to Abe’s office was met with polite stonewalling and finally an email link to old press releases with platitudes about “the way forward.”
Kitagami tells The Daily Beast the DPJ’s position was that “reactors judged to be safe should be restarted in the short term, reduced in the medium to long term, and be at zero by the 2030s.” Ironically, many Japanese had objected to that timeline as not speedy enough. But people have short attention spans. And with the stock market up and the yen stronger—Abe has moved aggressively to fix the nation’s sagging economy, even taking on powerful business and farming interests—many citizens seem willing to table the nuclear discussion.
Misao Redwolf, a well-known activist with the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes and an organizer behind the weekly demonstrations outside the prime minister’s office, says bluntly: “I would say the agitation or anti-nuke movement has been weakened.” But she also insists Japanese people want the country weaned off nuclear energy. “I believe they voted for the LDP not because they wanted nuclear plants,” she says. “[But] because the Democratic Party was a terrible party to lead the country in every area, the voters had no choice but to vote to LDP—without thinking much about the nuclear issue.”
She has a point. The LDP won a landslide in the lower house last December on its promise to “build a strong and prosperous Japan”—a vow that appealed to voters fed up with the nation’s economic slide and instability. If Abe and his party win the upper house as well in July, the country could see the nuclear conundrum resolved pretty quickly: “Abe is eyeing another big win in the upcoming elections, and after he wins big and resolves the twisted Diet [Parliament], he would go ahead with nuclear power all the way without a hesitation,” says Redwolf. “I worry so much about that. We should not let the LDP win.”
As a practical matter, no government, regardless of its politics, has much choice on nuclear power in the short term. Japan is not exactly awash in alternatives. The government has approved a wind-turbine development venture with TEPCO, the utility that runs the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but there aren’t many other options available. Since the reactors have been idled, Japan has relied on “old energy”—coal and gas—for its needs. That’s one reason the country’s trade balance is in the red: the coal and gas are imported. There has been relatively little discontent, though, because consumers have voluntarily cut back on consumption, and while power utilities are hurting, the government won’t let them raise rates. “That would be bad politics right now,” Kitagami notes dryly.
There are some who regard nuclear power as a political football that further traumatizes Fukushima victims. Shigenobu Nagataki, professor emeritus at Nagasaki University and executive director of the Japan Radioisotope Association, says, “My personal concern is how to protect afflicted people from the agitation of anti-nukes. Some of them—I must say not all—emphasize too much the health effects of radiation” and scare Fukushima-area residents. “The agitation disturbs the sincere dialogue among stakeholders on how to minimize the health effects based on the scientific estimation of those health effects,” he adds. “I would like to protect afflicted people from the discussion of nuclear power utilization from both sides.”
One activist, however, said the anti-nuclear movement is less concerned about science and immediate radiation issues than with some big questions bubbling beneath the discussion, such as companies profiting from the Fukushima disaster—and even the advent of nuclear weapons. “I think now the construction companies are making lots of money out of ‘reconstruction,’ and the Reconstruction Agency of Japan is in charge of huge business opportunities in the affected areas,” says Ryota Sono, one of the most prominent young activists, in explaining why demonstrations must continue. “And the Japanese government wants to hold on to nuclear power because they are interested in producing nuclear bombs.”
A veteran hawk, Prime Minister Abe wants to strengthen Japan, even review its pacifist constitution. And he has taken a tough—some say belligerent—stance against Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which critics worry could lead to conflict with the nuclear-armed regional superpower. Abe may want Japan to have a stronger, declared military, but no one is prepared to say whether he would like Japan to acquire nuclear weapons.
For now, the government is moving cautiously on the nuclear plants, held in check in part by the independent Nuclear Regulation Authority, established last June by the Noda government. The authority has signaled it believes the reactors can be restarted in the summer of 2014.
Beyond that, the nation will find out soon enough if Abe and the LDP will retreat from the Democrat Party’s pledge to phase out nuclear power by the 2030s. “It’s clear the LDP are definitely more pro-nuclear than the DPJ,” says Kitagami.
The question is whether they’re more pro-nuclear than the Japanese people.
Toshihiro Yamada contributed to this report.