Japan: Nuclear power on the ropes as m'vt grows

March 24, 2012
Anti-nuclear protests, Japan, March 11.

Last week I had a dream that my house in the western part of Tokyo was shaking violently around me. Then I woke up and discovered it wasn’t a dream at all. It was a 5.3 magnitude earthquake with its epicentre in nearby Saitama.

It was the second earthquake I had felt in less than a week following the March 11 anniversary of Japan's earthquake and tsunami disaster. It was a frightening and potent reminder of exactly why it is so important to rid Japan of nuclear power plants.

I joined more than 10,000 people in a rally and march through the government district of central Tokyo on March 11. The crowd assembled in the historic Hibiya Park, the site of important protests throughout Japan’s modern history.

The people gathered were diverse ― men and women, old and young. Yet there was certainly less of the colour that characterised many of the protests against nuclear power last year.

The mood was more sombre and the sky was grey. We were broken up into blocs of about 1000 or so by police as we stepped into the streets. Marching past many of the major ministry buildings, we received a big cheer from the activists gathered at the sit-in protest camp outside the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry that has been maintained since September last year.

After the march, most people flowed onto the next action: the formation of a human chain around the National Diet, Japan’s parliament. Thousands filled the narrow space along the footpaths surrounding the building.

Police repression

However, I began to hear rumours that the police were blocking protesters from completing the chain on the fourth face of the parliament building. I wandered along the line to see for myself and came across several angry people berating the police.

The police simply ignored their pleas to be allowed to complete the chain. The atmosphere was tense for a while, but in the end no attempt was made to defy the police.

In discussing these events over dinner after the march, my friends and I contemplated what it might mean to take that last 300 metres. I found myself thinking back to the G8 protests I attended in Tokyo in 2008.

At that time, police prevented one group of anti-poverty campaigners from unfurling a banner because it was wider than the narrow lane in which the march was permitted. A visiting French anti-poverty activist spoke at the rally following the march and urged that we take “one more metre of freedom”. What would it take, I wonder, for all of the space of the city to be free?

Yet, although the limits of freedom in Japan may be obvious, the anti-nuclear movement does seem to be having a significant effect. As I write, only two of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are still in operation.

One is to be shut down for scheduled maintenance by the end of this month, leaving the final reactor to be shut down by May. Over the past 12 months as reactors have been shut down for scheduled maintenance they have not been restarted.

A combination of hurdles, including ongoing safety tests imposed by the previous prime minister and the reluctance of local government officials to issue final approval, has meant not one of the reactors has been switched back on.

An ongoing series of scandals and cover-ups has further discredited the nuclear industry and government. The official line from the electricity companies and the Noda administration is that nuclear power generation will be resumed, but it appears entirely possible that none of the reactors will be switched back on.

The possibility of an end to nuclear power in Japan is within reach.

Nuclear capitalism on the run

In this context it is worth considering Japan’s plans to export nuclear technologies to several developing countries, including India, Bangladesh and Jordan.

Approval for the export of nuclear technology was passed by the Diet late last year, in spite of the ongoing problems of radioactive contamination in Japan itself.

In a recent speech Professor Yuki Tanaka of the Hiroshima Peace Institute said the planned export of nuclear technologies needs to be understood in light of the fact that it is unlikely nuclear plants will ever be built in Japan again.

Makers of nuclear reactors have enormous amounts of fixed capital invested in the factories designed to produce the reactors. Unless these manufacturers can find export markets for their reactors this capital will never make a profit.

Tanaka also placed the decision by Australia to begin uranium exports to India in the context of the drop in demand for uranium from Japan, previously one of Australia’s biggest export markets for the mineral.

There is a risk nuclear technologies may be banished from countries with a long history of anti-nuclear activism, such as Germany, but relocated to poorer countries where opposition is more difficult and there is a great need for energy. We need to build a global anti-nuclear movement capable of countering nuclear globalisation.

A year since Fukushima

One year on from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the world is a very different place. The anti-nuclear movement in Japan is becoming more and more diverse. It encompasses citizen-based radiation monitoring, protests, independent media, permanent sit-ins and a growing network of educational activities.

Yet the official discourse in Japanese society remains largely impervious to this development. The mainstream media continue to mostly ignore protesters and play down nuclear safety issues.

The ongoing plight of the people affected by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters is being hidden behind a wave of rhetoric about “reconstruction”’ and “looking forward”. Protests, like those on March 11, are important ways to resist the ongoing attempts to make the nuclear catastrophe disappear.

The anti-nuclear movement in Japan is largely ignored by the media, treated as a spectacle by the world and subject to police repression. But it is thriving in spite of these difficulties.

What is emerging in the anti-nuclear movement is not only a strong opposition to this dangerous technology, but a demand on the part of the vast majority of people to be able to take part in decisions that affect their lives.

In the midst of the radioactive fallout from the Fukushima disaster, the anti-nuclear movement is helping to build a new, more democratic Japan.

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