Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Sparks Renewed Activism


In the wake of last year’s tsunami and nuclear crisis in Fukushima, environmental concerns and health fears have heightened among everyday citizens in Japan, and skepticism has spread about information from government and corporate sources.

In a new East-West Center policy brief, Purdue University political science professor Daniel P. Aldrich discusses how Japanese civil society, which for decades has appeared weak and nonparticipatory, has now reawakened as citizens effect change through grassroots science and activism.

In the AsiaPacific Issues paper titled “Post-Crisis Japanese Nuclear Policy: From Top-Down Directives to Bottom-Up Activism,” Aldrich writes that “the recent (and ongoing) accident at the Fukushima nuclear complex may be the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Public meetings that have typically been “rituals of assent” are now the scenes of confrontations as citizens refuse to accept statements from the government or industry at face value. Citizens use social media such as Twitter to seek out other participants for demonstrations. Organizers across the country carried out a Sayonara Nuclear Power Rally in Tokyo’s Meiji Park in mid-September, which drew celebrity speakers and roughly 40,000 participants.

These coordinated antinuclear protests are significant not only because they are relatively rare and indicate new levels of activism, but also because “the very act of participation in public protest deepensJapan’s democracy and enhances the presence of often unrepresented demographics, such as urban workers and youth, in the public sphere,” Aldrich writes.

In this atmosphere of skepticism, several new initiatives have sprung up that illustrate how Japan’s civil society has been energized. Aldrich describes one project in which Japanese citizens and foreign residents who own Geiger counters have traveled throughout Japan(including areas in Fukushima), measured radiation levels, and electronically uploaded the collected data to a central website, creating a public repository of data generated through transparent methodology in real time.

Aldrich describes how questions of economic independence and energy security—particularly the oil crisis in the 1970s—motivated the Japanese government to encourage the expansion of nuclear energy. The government developed an extensive array of policy instruments and soft social control techniques designed to bring public opinion in line with national energy goals. “Authorities and regulators overcame opposition and concerns among the broader population and in specific demographic groups, such as coastal fishermen and students, through focused policy instruments intent on manipulating support,” he writes.

Industry planners and government bureaucrats deliberately targeted rural communities, where it was less likely that there would be an organized antinuclear campaign, Aldrich writes: “Mayors and governors who supported atomic reactors in their areas would find themselves invited to the prime minister’s residence in Tokyo for a public recognition ceremony honoring their assistance with meeting national energy goals.”

Many of Japan’s depopulating towns and villages found the millions of dollars in government subsidies irresistible. “The promise of a nuclear power plant meant potential jobs, millions of dollars in grants and loans, new infrastructure, and the prospect of survival” to these shrinking communities, Aldrich says. He argues, however, that this artificial economic boost is damaging in the long run, since much of the funding dries up once a power plant is operational, leaving these communities with little hope of another economic revival unless they entertain an expansion of the current facility to receive more incentives and subsidies. “The flow of money into often older, impoverished rural communities has created a ‘culture of dependence’ and a ‘cycle of addiction,’” Aldrich writes.

The energy-security questions that motivated the government to encourage the expansion of nuclear power must now be reexamined, he asserts. But it is unclear how the country’s energy needs will be met, if not by nuclear.

The expense of moving away from nuclear power is formidable, and while there is talk of expanding renewable energy sources, these options are far from being ready to replace nuclear power as a primary energy source in Japan. But the cost estimates for maintaining the country’s existing nuclear program are also extremely high, which Aldrich hopes will motivate strong government support of solar, geothermal, and wind power.

Aldrich writes that the government is showing a willingness to move away from top-down, technocratic decision-making processes, demonstrating that public pressure may be altering decades of “business-as-usual politics.” He gives the example that the government has already promised to separate nuclear regulators from nuclear promoters.

However, while there are now political and social challenges to the “iron triangle” of the nuclear industry—big business, bureaucrats, and politicians—no public discussion has taken place on the subject of changing the elaborate incentive system or eliminating subsidies to rural host communities. Aldrich concludes that only time will tell if this large-scale catastrophe will break the cycle of nuclear dependence created by more than 30 years of government support and host-community rewards.

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