Largest Demonstrations Protest Nuclear Power Plants

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Largest Demonstrations in Half a Century Protest the Restart of Japanese Nuclear Power Plants


Piers Williamson


On 29 June, Japan witnessed its largest public protest since the 1960s. This was the latest in a series of Friday night gatherings outside Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko's official residence. Well over one hundred thousand people came together to vent their anger at his 16 June decision to order a restart of Units 3 and 4 at the Oi nuclear plant . This article discusses the events of the last several weeks which sparked this massive turnout as well as the nature of the protest. It begins by outlining the Japanese government's recent policies affirming nuclear power, from  Noda's nationwide address of 8 June justifying the Oi restarts on the grounds of 'protecting livelihoods', and continuing with the move on 20 June to revise the Atomic Energy Basic Law and establish a law to set up a new, yet potentially toothless, nuclear regulatory agency.

It then examines the main criticisms that drove people into the streets in successive demonstrations. Popular suspicions centre not only on regulatory questions, namely concerns over the neutering of a new regulatory agency, and the half-hearted temporary 'safety' standards applicable to restarts, but also on conditions on the ground at Oi. It concludes with accounts of the 22 June demonstration in which 40,000 citizens suddenly appeared to vent their anger, and the even larger 29 June action.

Governmental Initiatives: More of the Same

Japan shut down the last of its 54 reactors for inspections on 5 May 2012, the first time since May 1970 when Japan both of Japan's two reactors were taken offline for maintenance. However, it now appears that Japan will only have been without nuclear power post-Fukushima for just under two months. On 8 June, Prime Minister Noda called for resumption of nuclear power generation in a nationwide address.1 His national appeal reportedly came in response to requests from Fukui governor Kazumi Nishikawa, who called on Noda to show 'responsible command' and 'address the issue up front'.2

Noda stated that he was ordering a restart of Units 3 and 4 at Oi, both pressure water reactors built in the early 1990s, because it was the ultimate responsibility of the state to 'protect the livelihood of the people'. He defined 'protecting the livelihoods of the people' as ensuring both adequate safety measures at nuclear plants and providing a stable electricity supply. Noda explained that the Kansai area served by the Kansai Electric Power Company (KEPCO) would otherwise face a 15% electricity shortfall in the summer. This gap could not be overcome through power saving and any power cuts that might arise would endanger people's lives and cause disruption. Stressing the continued important of nuclear power, Noda announced that the government would produce a long-term energy plan in August.

Buildings housing Oi reactors 3 and 4 in Kyodo photo in 2000

On 16 June, the government officially announced that it would order the restart of Units 3 and 4 at Oi with the agreement of the Fukui governor. The previous day, governor Nishikawa received safety assurances from KEPCO CEO Yagi Makoto.3 KEPCO announced on 25 June that it would restart Unit 3 on 1 July and aim to reach full capacity by 8 July.4

Five days earlier, on 20 June, the Diet also revised the Atomic Energy Basic Law and passed a new regulatory agency law. In addition to the four principles of openness, democracy, autonomy and peace stipulated in Article 2 of the Atomic Energy Basic Law, a new principle was added, that nuclear power will 'contribute to national security'. Nuclear Policy Minister Hosono Goshi insisted that this addition refers only to preventing proliferation,5 whilst critics argue that it violates the peace principle.6 The revisions went through without public discussion, and the bill was not listed on the Diet's homepage until it had passed the Lower House. The 'national security' provision, which was not part of the cabinet's original bill, was added by the LDP during parliamentary negotiations without DPJ opposition.7 The amendment provoked an uproar in South Korea.8 Apart from the obvious military implications, the principle seems to be a declaration that Japan will never abandon nuclear power because to do so would jeopardize 'national security'. Logically, this opens up rhetorical space for branding the anti-nuclear movement a threat to national security.

Critical Responses

The five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission that will run Japan's new safety agency will be set up in response to widespread criticism of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) for its lack of independence from METI and its appalling track record.9 The commission will be responsible for decision making during a crisis instead of the Prime Minister unless it is deemed to be acting too slowly. Whilst this might seem like a long overdue improvement that has only come at a tragic cost, serious doubts linger. 'Events at Fukushima Daiichi have clearly shown that Japan has had essentially no effective independent regulator of nuclear power since any of its plants were constructed,' noted Margaret Gundersen, President and Founder of Fairewinds Associates, and Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer at Fairewinds.  'Basically the nuclear plant owners did whatever they thought was acceptable for the owners, with little regulatory restrictions.  Even today, Japan still has no independent regulator.  How then the Japanese can declare that any of their plants has suddenly become "safe" remains an open question' [email to the author, 25 June]. Because the new body is not due to be established until September, the reactors at Oi will go online in accordance with temporary safety standards drawn up by the much discredited and now lame duck NISA.

These standards consist of thirty provisions, but the government has said that if Oi meets fifteen of them, that is enough. Faced with aggressive questioning by the Diet Accident Investigation Commission (DAIC) which was set up to look into the Fukushima disaster, Fukano Hiroyuki, the head of NISA, merely said that a political decision had been made and refused to confirm whether he considered that meeting fifteen out of thirty provisions was inadequate. He also failed to respond satisfactorily to the point that the temporary standards were ultimately based on estimates about what had happened at Fukushima and did not cover other types of accidents.10 This lack of substantial progress at the regulatory level is extremely troubling. As Arnie Gundersen explains in a report for Greenpeace International, ' was not a simple technological failure or an unpredictable act of Nature that caused the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. A failure of human institutions to acknowledge real reactor risks, a failure to establish and enforce appropriate safety standards and a failure to ultimately protect the public and the environment caused this tragedy. Additionally, it is important to note that institutional failure has been the principal cause of all past nuclear accidents, including Chernobyl and Three Mile Island'.11

Special advisor to Osaka governor and ex-METI official Koga Shigeaki, moreover, argues that the new law to create the regulatory agency contains large loopholes and was rushed through in three days so that it could be passed before the DAIC report was published.12 The DAIC report is expected to contain recommendations concerning the new regulatory system. For the new safety agency to be effective it needs to be completely independent. If that is to happen, officials must not be able to return to their original ministries, not least METI and MEXT. However, Koga notes that supplementary provision (i.e. not included in the main body of text) Article 6(2) stipulates that whilst officials cannot return directly to METI or MEXT they can do so eventually via another ministry. In discussing possible loopholes in the law, a Daily Yomiuri editorial noted that Japanese bureaucrats have a habit of turning exceptions into basic principles.13

Nor do the loopholes stop there. Supplementary provision Article 5 states that action based on the DAIC report will be taken within three years, and that the results of this report will be examined. Koga translates this to mean that nothing need be done within three years and that the DAIC report can ultimately be ignored. The present safety regulations may continue thus allowing all reactors to be restarted, especially if the new regulatory agency remains under METI control. Finally, whilst Nuclear Policy Minister Hosono announced on 6 January 2012 that reactors should be decommissioned once they became 40 years old, supplementary provision Article 6 (3-31) states that the life span of a reactor may be extended once to 60 years. Koga explains that this reflects a desire to drop the 40 year limit completely.

People thus fear that if the Oi reactors are restarted in this environment then others will soon follow suit. Those fears are not without substance. TEPCO President, Naomi Hirose, has clearly stated that 'Plan A' involves price hikes and a restart of the world's largest nuclear plant at Kashiwazaki-kariwa in Niigata. 'We have no choice right now but to do our best to carry out Plan A,' Hirose told Bloomberg on 18 June, 'We don't have a Plan B'.14 According to the Japan Times, the banks are pressuring TEPCO to restart the plant and raise prices as a condition for further loans.15 The Economist reports that the government, having effectively nationalized TEPCO with a 1 trillion yen injection, is pressuring the banks.16 Professor Kaneko Masaru of Keio University likens this strategy of propping up 'zombie corporations' to the approach taken in the early 1990s following the collapse of the bubble, which sparked Japan's 'lost 20 years'. He fears that the current policy will result in a 'lost 30 or 40 years'.17

Regarding, conditions on the ground at Oi, on 28 June a cross-party group opposed to nuclear power released a report rating Japan's nuclear reactors by danger level. The reactors at Kashiwazaki-kariwa ranked between 15 and 23 out of 49 levels. Units 1 and 2 at Oi were ranked as being the most dangerous, whilst Units 3 and 4 ranked 26.18 Professor Watanabe Mitsuhisa, a seismologist at Toyo University, notes that there may be an active fault line right between Units 2 and 3.19  Ishibashi Katsuhiko, a seismologist at Kobe University, agrees that NISA did not properly investigate the fault lines at Oi. He told reporters that '[t]he stress tests and new safety guidelines for restarting nuclear power plants both allow for accidents at plants to occur. Instead of making standards more strict, they both represent a severe setback in safety standards.'20 Nine anti-nuclear groups met with NISA on 25 June to demand a proper inspection. A NISA official merely stated that NISA would consider the request.21

Furthermore, an editorial in Tokyo Shinbun pointed out that the Oi plant only meets the first three of the IAEA's five safety principles.22 Principles Four and Five centre on limiting harm to citizens should an accident occur. Principle Four requires a vent with a filter and an earthquake proof control centre, whereas Principle Five requires adequate evacuation measures and the ready provision of iodine tablets. Currently, the vent is due to be installed in 2015 and an earthquake-proof control centre and raised tsunami wall are not scheduled to be completed until 2016.23 The construction of an off-site centre is still being examined, no system for monitoring radiation leaks in the region has been set up, and there is no coordinated evacuation plan with neighbouring prefectures.

The Japan Times reported that, '...the only route for escaping or for sending help would be a winding, cliff-hugging road often closed by snow in winter or clogged by summer beachgoers. Radioactivity from such an accident at the plant could contaminate the country's biggest freshwater source, Lake Biwa, which serves more than 14 million people'.24 As for the changes that have been made, the nuclear engineer, Masashi Goto, observes that KEPCO has only added equipment to the site; no changes have been made to the reactors themselves. The underlying approach is merely to reduce the probability of an accident occurring on the basis that accidents do occur. Goto argues that if one is happy for another major accident to happen in the name of electricity supply then that is a reasonable stance, if not then the reactors should not be restarted. He concludes that if judged from a safety perspective then the restarts are absurd.25

Citizens Take Action: A Time for Change

In light of the above, the contrast between the government's approach and public opinion is striking. For example, a recent Mainichi Shinbun poll showed that 71% of people think that it is not necessary to rush restarts.26 Moreover, on 7 June, the day before Noda made his address, he was visited by a citizen's group headed by Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburo, which presented him with a petition calling for an end to nuclear power. The petition had been signed by 7.5 million people.27 A week later on 14 June, another citizen's group, which had gathered 320,000 signatures in a call for a referendum on nuclear power, met with the Tokyo metropolitan assembly's general affairs committee. However, as in Osaka in March, they were rebuffed in a vote at the Tokyo assembly on 20 June.28

In addition to petitions, concerned citizens have been taking to the streets. Formed on 22 October 2011, the Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes (MCAN)29 has been using the internet to organize demonstrations against nuclear power.30 The use of the internet, and Twitter in particular, preserves a loosely woven network, and MCAN asks participants not to use banners or flags bearing political messages unrelated to the nuclear issue.

MCAN's first demonstration was held in Yokohama on 14 January 2012. On the one year anniversary of the 11 March disaster, around 14,000 activists encircled the Diet building in a candlelit vigil. Since 29 March, MCAN has been holding weekly protests outside the Prime Minister's official residence. MCAN says that participation has steadily ballooned from 300 protestors at the first event to around 45,000 people on 22 June.31 Other reports of 22 June vary from 10,000 to 20,000. Representative figures included Oe Kenzaburo, the composer Sakamoto Ryuichi, the actor Yamamoto Taro, the rock musician Goto Masafumi, and the writers Ochiai Keiko, Kamata Satoshi, and Hirose Takashi.

Tokyo Demo on the anniversary of 3.11 disaster

According to an account of the 22 June demo32 written by freelance journalist and board member of the newly established Free Press Association of Japan (FPAJ),33 Ryusaku Tanaka, a rightist group called Ese Uyoku claimed it had filed an application with Kojimachi Police Station to hold a public gathering on that day until 8 p.m. They started their activities just after midday intending to block the weekly anti-nuclear demonstration that was due to start at 6 p.m. Ten rightists were camped out at the crossroads in front of the Prime Minister's official residence shouting slogans such as 'Radiation is good for your health' and 'The chances of a nuclear accident are less than the chances of a plane crash'. The anti-nuclear protesters waited until 6 p.m. when they moved forward to take over the space occupied by the rightists and a small scuffle broke out.

In response, the police intervened and started pushing the rightists out of the way. Tanaka states that this was very unusual. When the rightists complained about unequal treatment the police replied that it was impossible to push back the anti-nuclear protestors as there were probably around 20,000 of them stretching back to Kasumigaseki. Tanaka confirmed that the line in fact stretched through Kasumigaseki to the crossroads thereby encircling the PM's residence and the cabinet office. Marchers of all ages started shouting slogans against nuclear power using microphones, and even after the scheduled 8 p.m. finish many stayed to shout without the use of electronic amplification.34 All in all, the march passed peacefully, prompting talk of the start of a Hydrangea Revolution in Japan (hydrangeas bloom in June).

Despite the size of the gathering on 22 June, bloggers complained that the event received scant media coverage. One wrote that NHK's 9 p.m. flagship news show completely ignored it. TV Asahi's 10 p.m. show merely mentioned the number of demonstrators and then tried to ask Trade and Industry Minister Edano Yukio, and Nuclear Policy Minister, Hosono Goshi, what they thought as they were leaving the PM's official residence.35 A reader of the Japan Times wrote a letter to the editor commenting on the general lack of coverage in comparison to the frenzied reporting of the capture of Takahashi Katsuya, the 1995 Sarin gas attack suspect.36

Anti-nuclear actions taken by shareholders at TEPCO and KEPCO received more coverage later in the week, as nine out of ten of Japan's power companies rejected proposals to abandon nuclear power at shareholder meetings on 27 June.37 When Osaka governor Hashimoto Toru asked KEPCO about reprocessing and whether it had a business plan to survive without nuclear power, KEPCO board members responded that reprocessing was critical and that abandoning nuclear power would cause an astronomical increase in costs.38 The KEPCO vice president also asserted that a mix of all energy sources, including nuclear, was the best option for the future.39 For its part, TEPCO rejected proposals made by the Tokyo metropolitan vice-governor, Inose Naoki, for transparency in decision-making on price hikes.

The 29 June Protest

As has been the case every week, the official event was scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. When I arrived at 5.30, people were streaming out of Exit 3 at Kokkai Gijidomae station in front of the PM's official residence. There was already a long line stretching down the street. Riot vans were parked opposite and policemen were stationed at regular intervals in front of the line. Demo organizers at the exit, identifiable by their green armbands, were directing people who had just arrived to walk to the back of the procession. Participants were doing their best to stand close to the wall to allow people to move to the back in compliance with instructions from both the organizers and the police. Tanaka Ryusaku estimates that there were already around 45,000 there before 6pm.40 I spoke to an organizer at around 6 p.m. who reported that the line was 2 km long. I decided to walk to the end to see. By 6.30 it stretched three quarters of the way round the block housing the Cabinet building. Some construction work was taking place next door and a large sign adjacent to the PM's official residence read 'Safety First' (anzen daiichi). I couldn't help but smile at the irony. Organizers were directing people arriving from other directions to join the back rather than go to the front where it was getting congested.

The crowd at the PM's residence, June 29. Kyodo News

Although the organizers were clearly trying very hard to comply with police instructions to keep the pavement and street clear, even recommending alternative stations to use at the end to prevent a crush, by 7 p.m. people had spilled over onto the road at the front on the Exit 3 side. The police were using bollards to try and keep one lane open, but by 7.30 p.m. they had to give up as the road became blocked in one direction. 'Look! They've occupied the street', I heard one North American attendee comment to her friend in surprise. And it was surprising. Everyone was very well behaved and clearly attempting to follow the barrage of instructions, but the sheer weight of numbers resulted in a de facto act of civil disobedience.

Tanaka Ryusaku writes that the surge of people at the front eventually threatened to pour into the PM's residence. After a shout of 'Protect the official residence' went up, several riot police vans drove forward to block off the entrance. The police then made repeated calls for people to 'remain calm'. Tanaka surmises that the police on duty had never before experienced such a large gathering.41 But if the protestors themselves did not manage to enter the residence, their voices did. 'That's a loud noise,' the PM commented to his security detail as he entered.42 That might be the only thing that Noda has got right so far.

The main chant that I heard was 'No Restarts!' (saikado hantai) which people were shouting together in response to cheerleaders with megaphones and groups of drummers spaced out down the line. By around 7.30 it was deafening. Earlier, other slogans were shouted, usually to a drum beat, such as 'Give Back Fukushima!' (fukushima kaese), 'Noda Quit!' (noda yamero), and one I heard in English, 'Shame on TEPCO!'. There was also no shortage of flags, signs and banners of varying sizes and qualities, in Japanese, English, and both, all with messages against nuclear power, the restarts and the Noda administration. Many of these were home made and original, expressing the sentiments of those who created and carried them. Some also drove past in trucks decked out with banners. The atmosphere was that of a very well-behaved, yet very angry, carnival. It dispersed quickly and calmly at 8 p.m. as planned when the organizers called a halt.

The Nuclear Era is Over if you want it Photo Ishikawa Haruko



One noticeable feature of the demonstration was the age range, from small children to the elderly. I spoke to a forty year old housewife who was carrying her four year old daughter. Following the accident at Fukushima, she had evacuated with her daughter to Niigata Prefecture from Chiba Prefecture. Her husband had to stay on in Chiba. 'For the sake of the children, I want them to get rid of nuclear reactors...They keep saying 'the economy', 'the economy', but life is more important. We have an economy because of life. They need to return to the start and think again...When I think about what we as adults have to do it is clear that we have to protect the children's futures [here and below, my translation].'

Noda's claims that the Oi reactors are in fact 'safe' drew a sharp reaction from a sixty year old man who described himself as working in the medical sector. 'That's a lie. A lie. Economic circles just want the restarts to help out the nuclear village. So they are just lying.

There is no proof that it is safe. It's just a lie.... Raising our voices is a major right of the people. We have to keep speaking out otherwise we don't know what will happen. I want everyone to speak out.' His feelings were echoed by a fifty nine year old woman. 'There's no proof its safe,' she said, 'It's a lie. The politicians just want to protect themselves and the nuclear village....The reason we are in this situation is because people did not take politics seriously, we just thought about ourselves. But we also have a responsibility. If things are to get better, everyone has to do their part.'

A twenty year old student concurred, 'Nothing will come of thinking alone. It is important to try and get your message across,' she said. Although she thought that an immediate abolition of nuclear power was impossible, she added, 'I think it is possible to aim for abolition and change the economy gradually to move in that direction. I disagree with the idea that it is impossible to break away from nuclear power.' However, the sixty year old man said he did not believe the argument that an abolition of nuclear power would destroy the economy. 'The economy won't collapse. New industries will be born, such as renewable energy, so the economy won't collapse. But we have been taking electricity and our lifestyles for granted, so we will have to change that a bit. But if we persevere, then new industries will appear and the economy will take off. So moving towards renewables and new industries is a better direction for the economy.'

A forty six year old man who was involved in video production also believed there were other non-nuclear options. 'The idea of 'safety' is nonsense. But more important than the question of being either for or against nuclear power is the fact that people in Japan have to search for a new energy source. The fact that we haven't had any demonstrations like this until now shows that we are still behind the times.' He was unequivocal when it came to the government's assertion that nuclear power could not be abandoned without jeopardizing economic growth. 'I don't care if the economy collapses. Life comes first. The children in a hundred years time are most important. The economy will recover. Even if we go backwards and the economy tanks, I still cannot accept nuclear power.'

With sentiments like these spreading rapidly, the massive protest on 29 June received more coverage than the one the week before. I saw reporters from TBS and the Wall Street Journal, and foreign journalists were also present. TBS cites the organizers as estimating that 200,000 people turned up to vent their displeasure,43 while the New York Times writes that '[e]stimates of the crowd's size varied widely, with organizers claiming 150,000 participants, while the police put the number at 17,000. Local media estimated the crowd at between 20,000 and 45,000, which they described as the largest protest in central Tokyo since the 1960s.' Asahi put the number at 150-180,000,44 and Toyo Keizai at 150,000.45

I checked some of the nighttime news shows to see how coverage fared compared to the previous week. NHK's 15 minute local news programme at 8.45 did not cover the protest, but the 9 p.m. news did. After leading with the apology made by the new TEPCO President to the Fukushima evacuees, NHK followed with a 2 minute 30 second report. All the footage was, however, taken before dark and thus long before the peak. It cited both the MCAN and the police figure for the previous week but said nothing about the figure for that day. TV Asahi's 10 p.m. show devoted 2 minutes 27 seconds to footage, which was of the peak and included aerial shots and a map of the line, followed by 2 minutes 33 seconds of commentary by the famous journalist Torigoe Shuntaro. He compared it to the 1960 demonstrations, in which he participated, and the Arab Spring and said it was a revival of active citizenship. He expected it to grow and expressed sympathy. Asahi did not cite a number for the turnout, but Torigoe said it must have been around 40,000 again. TBS's 11 p.m. show led with the story and gave it 6 minutes 45 seconds of coverage. It included aerial shots of the peak, and showed a chart of MCAN's figures for all the protests so far, including the 200,000 estimate for that day. Comparisons were made to the Arab Spring while noting that there were special 'Family areas' at the anti-nuclear demonstrations so that people could bring children. The show also focused on the use of the internet to both organize and close the demo on time, as well as live-stream broadcasts so that people who could not make it could be there in spirit.

Popular demand for change continues to grow. The move to restart reactors comes despite the fact that the precise causes of the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant remain obscure, vast tracts of land and sea and a significant portion of the food supply remain contaminated, 160,000 people remain internally displaced, no known technology can handle the melt-throughs, and there is no solution for nuclear waste disposal. The state's aggressive move to restart Oi contrasts with its tardy response to the accident and its aftereffects, and to its lack of concern about the risk of a further disaster at Unit 4 should it be hit by a large aftershock or a quake caused by a reactivated fault line underneath the plant. And it comes in the wake of overwhelming expression of anti-nuclear power sentiment. Pronouncements of a commitment to protect the public now ring very hollow indeed. Iida Tetsunari, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, and anti-nuclear candidate for the governor of Yamaguchi Prefecture, commented that 'There is anger and a loss of confidence in the government. This is an irreversible change, and I expect this type of movement to continue.'46

Whether or not the anti-nuclear movement will be successful remains to be seen. Power elites do not give in easily and we can expect them to fight tooth and nail for every scrap of privilege that they can lay their hands on. However, one cannot help but feel that we are witnessing a battle for the soul of Japan. The weekly demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister's official residence will continue, and other events are planned. In particular, MCAN is calling for a massive rally to encircle the Diet on 29 July. This issue is too big to be dismissed, and so are the huge crowds of people now seeking to challenges the state in order to build a better and more secure future.

A Japan Times photo essay on the June 29 demonstration is here.

I would like to thank Andrew DeWit, Mark Selden, Hayakawa Azumi and Doman Haruhiko for their input and help.

Piers Williamson is a research assistant to Professor Andrew DeWit at Rikkyo University. He holds a PhD in East Asian Studies from the University of Sheffield.

Recommended citation: Piers Williamson, "Largest Demonstrations in Half a Century Protest the Restart of Japanese Nuclear Power Plants," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 27, No. 5, July 2, 2012.

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