“If the decision-making framework of society were to change, I think nuclear power would soon disappear.”


ProfileAileen Mioko Smith
In 1971, Aileen Mioko Smith moved to the town of Minamata in Kumamoto prefecture with her husband, the photographer W. Eugene Smith. They lived in the town for three years to document ‘Minamata disease’, a neurological condition caused by industrial mercury contamination. She has been involved in environmental activism ever since, including thirty years working with citizens’ groups to take on Japan’s nuclear establishment. She currently runs Green Action, a Kyoto-based NGO.

“Picture yourself hurtling down a narrow road, with nowhere to get out of the way if a car comes in the opposite direction. It’s just a matter of time before you meet with disaster. When the news of the situation unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi reached me, I knew the inevitable had finally caught up with us.”

Aileen Mioko Smith, who has spent over thirty years fighting nuclear power both inside and outside Japan, maintains that a major nuclear accident in Japan was always going to happen. It was not a matter of if, but when. Her one hope had been that citizen-led opposition might have been able to avert disaster in time. The Fukushima Daiichi accident, second only to Chernobyl in terms of impact, confirmed her worst fears but also stiffened her resolve to do everything in her power to prevent the same thing from happening again.

The things we take for granted now were once somebody’s struggle

Nuclear reactors require constant cooling. All of Japan’s nuclear plants are situated on the coast, where seawater ensures an unlimited supply of coolant. Surrounded by water on all sides, the island country of Japan was spoilt for choice when it came to locations for building its nuclear plants. During the 1960s and 1970s, they sprung up like a rash along Japan’s charming but isolated provincial coastlines.

Citizen-led anti-nuclear groups began to appear at the same time as this nuclear construction spree. In Japan, citizen activism is sometimes viewed as being weak and ineffective, but Smith stresses that without the efforts of these groups, Japan could have found itself in an even more dire situation.

“All over the country, whenever a proposal for a nuclear plant arose, local fishermen and farmers mobilized together with workers’ unions and urban supporters to fight the plans. It’s fair to say that thanks to their work during that era, many dangerous situations have been avoided. Unfortunately, their legacy is difficult to appreciate because no one notices the absence of a plant that was never built. I’m not sure even the activists themselves realise the extent of their achievements. The battles of the past are largely forgotten, but their outcomes shape our lives today. Nowadays, women go out and vote as if it’s nothing, but if their predecessors had kept their mouths shut, it’s quite possible we would not have women’s suffrage even today.”

Over the past decades, time and again citizens have stood up to fight plans for new nuclear facilities. Through organised protests and local referendums, activists have succeeded in delaying or even forcing the cancelation of many of these projects. In total, there are 64 sites in Japan where planned nuclear plants were shelved before construction even started. Since the decisions on whether or not to push ahead with such major projects lie with the central government, regional authorities, and power companies, the role of the general public in the final decision often goes unrecorded. The nuclear establishment is understandably reluctant to acknowledge the extent to which public opposition influences their decisions, making it all the more difficult to appreciate the degree to which citizen-led activism has shaped modern life in Japan. Were it not for their efforts, Japan’s dependency on nuclear power would have been even greater than it was at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake. Not to detract from the events at Fukushima Daiichi, the situation after March 11th, 2011 could potentially have been much more severe.

For half a century, Smith has been working with the victims of Minamata disease. Many young people growing up in Japan today are largely unaware of the environmental and public health crisis caused by the Chisso Corporation and the battles its victims have faced in seeking justice.

“As a result of the incredible efforts of the victims of Minamata disease, Japan was forced to tighten up its environmental laws. It’s thanks to them that the next generation were able to grow up in a much cleaner environment. I want people to realise that the struggle of the citizens of Minamata years ago is reflected in the healthy bodies of the children growing up today.”

Japanese activism and the national character

Soon after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, Smith identified the importance of setting up citizen-led radiation monitoring programmes as quickly as possible. She acted as an intermediary between local citizen groups and overseas organisations who had volunteered equipment, ensuring that support was delivered to where it was needed on the ground. For the remainder of 2011, Smith devoted her time to encouraging citizens to monitor and record radiation levels, knowing that the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) could not be relied on to keep full and accurate records.

As time passed, her focus shifted toward preventing Japan’s remaining nuclear plants from restarting.

“I had no expectation that the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in itself would be enough to prompt the country to change course on nuclear power. That’s not the way Japan works. However, what I found very frustrating was that the anti-nuclear movement, myself included, had failed to effectively leverage Fukushima Daiichi in terms of stressing the lessons of the disaster and preventing similar incidents from happening in the future.”

The Fukushima Daiichi accident saw a surge in anti-nuclear sentiment among the general public. What had previously been a minority issue suddenly became the majority view. However, many veteran activists who had been fighting for years had an ingrained view of themselves as a marginalised group, and struggled to shake off this mentality. This left them poorly equipped to capitalise on the new wave of public anger, says Smith.

“It’s not only the activists’ fault, though. Japanese society is still quite immature in some ways, and when the movement took off rapidly it was unable to maintain momentum. Once the wave had passed, ultimately all that was left in its wake were the same people who had been there all along. The key is for us activists not to become too fixated on our ‘traditional’ methods, and to have the flexibility to rethink strategy and goals in line with the current situation. It’s important to be able to evaluate what approach will have the greatest impact at any given time. Of course, that’s easier said than done.”

The nuclear industry and its proponents also understand and knowingly exploit the fact that the ‘Japanese way’ is largely to suffer in silence, even in the face of great injustice. The Japanese government is counting on the population tiring of a protracted battle and losing the will to fight. In Smith’s opinion, the attention to detail and earnestness that are something of a trademark of the Japanese people are being skillfully manipulated by the establishment to build the case for clinging onto nuclear power. Drastic changes are anathema to the decision makers at the top of Japanese society, who are preoccupied with tweaking minor details while maintaining the status quo.

“Contemporary Japan suffers from an inertia born of wanting to keep things as they are. The country has invested in nuclear for decades, an industry has built up around that, and vested interests have then built up around the industry. Many regions are now economically dependent on the nuclear plants they host. The structure has become so entrenched it will take a great deal of creativity on the part of both citizens and the authorities to even contemplate changing the way things are, let alone moving toward full denuclearisation.”

A nuclear debate that fails to see the wood for the trees

Germany moved quickly after the Fukushima Daiichi accident in announcing a complete phase-out of nuclear power. A key player behind this decision was the independent ‘Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply’ set up by the German government in the immediate aftermath of the accident in Japan. The committee was made up of politicians, philosophers, religious leaders, and academics of all callings, while intentionally excluding interest groups with entrenched positions either in favour of or against nuclear power. The commission’s remit was not to discuss technological or economic issues, but to examine just one question: “Can it ever be ethically acceptable to use a form of power generation with the potential to cause such great damage to both people and the environment?”

Japan has struggled to adopt such a multidisciplinary approach, and arguments for and against nuclear power rattle unprofitably back and forth while the power companies do their best to instill a fear of power shortages, were nuclear to be eliminated from the energy mix. There has been little attempt to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the many issues surrounding nuclear power, including not only safety and exposure risks, but also lingering questions surrounding costs, the disposal of nuclear waste, and sustainability. Instead, arguments have tended to become fixated on relatively minor technical points, the bigger picture becoming lost in a sea of detail.

Smith has also observed this tendency to become stuck on technicalities within the anti-nuclear movement.

“Japan’s anti-nuclear movement has a strong focus on local communities. Support is directed toward the residents of nuclear host communities, or toward the victims in the case of Fukushima Daiichi. Of course, this is all very important work. Given the current state of play in Japan, it wouldn’t be realistic to start calling for an ethics-based reevaluation like we saw in Germany, and it’s important to keep our activities firmly rooted. But in terms of getting closer to the ultimate goal of denuclearization, I think the next step now is to start coming up with realistic economic alternatives for these communities.”

A system in need of change, and vision for regional economies

Whilst ‘Protect our lives!’ is an important and obvious message, on its own it is not enough to give the anti-nuclear movement the traction it needs. If the communities that currently host Japan’s nuclear power stations are ever to achieve a nuclear-free future, they will need a strong economic foundation in order to shake off their dependency on nuclear money. This means establishing strong sustainable industries tailored to local strengths that will enable these towns and villages to support future generations without relying on the nuclear cash flow. If it is to succeed, the anti-nuclear movement needs to work together with communities to come up with realistic proposals for survival in a post-nuclear economy. In Smith’s view, this is equally if not more important than raising awareness of the risks.

“One conversation that will always stay with me was with an elderly lady who lived with a nuclear plant right on her doorstep. She told me that ‘the greatest harm the plant has done to us has been to turn us into a town that can’t decide anything for itself.’ This is a systemic problem. Without structural changes to encourage communities to stand on their own two feet, the same fundamental problems will remain even after the plants shut down and the decommissioning industry or renewable energy or others moves in to fill the gap. This system that creates economic dependency on nuclear power is in a way more problematic than nuclear power itself. This is a discussion that the anti-nuclear movement needs to do more to engage with and promote.”

Smith has increasingly come to recognise the importance of debate regarding the unbalanced economic relationship between the urban conglomerates that build and operate nuclear plants, and their host communities. This is fertile ground for discussion, but in order to engage with it effectively the anti-nuclear movement will need to attract fresh expertise from the worlds of economics and analytics.

We are currently in a period of transition brought about in part by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. If we are able to capitalise on the current situation and reimagine the economic framework from the ground up, it will be a chance to take a big step toward resolving many issues that go beyond nuclear power. This shouldn’t be something that citizen activists and communities fearing for their future survival should have to see through from beginning to end. The task is much greater, and needs to be addressed throughout society in a manner that engages both urban and provincial communities and experts from all fields.

“There’s also a problem in that Japan’s decision makers aren’t reflective of society as a whole. Japan is a very male-centric society, but is heavily unbalanced not just in terms of gender but also generationally. If the decision-making framework of society were to change, I think nuclear power would soon disappear. On the other hand, if things carry on as they always have been, the same problems will drag on forever. The specific issues of the day will change, but the fundamental problems surrounding the nuclear industry will always be the same.”

Given the current state of Japanese society, the day on which the values of citizens of all walks of life are reflected in policy decisions may still seem far away. But unless we hold onto this vision, nothing will change. The decisions we make today need to be made in the interests of the next generation, who are the least able to speak up for themselves but who are set to inherit the burdens of society one day soon. It is us adults who have the power to set in motion the systematic changes that will ensure a fairer society tomorrow. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to create the best possible future for our children to ‘take for granted’.

  • *Number of locations (by prefecture) where nuclear plant proposals have been shelved before reaching the construction stage: Hokkaido 6, Aomori 5, Akita 2, Iwate 3, Niigata 1, Fukushima 1, Ishikawa 2, Mie 3, Wakayama 4, Hyogo 2, Kyoto 1, Okayama 1, Tottori 1, Shimane 2, Yamaguchi 4, Tokushima 3, Ehime 1, Kochi 2, Fukuoka 3, Oita 2, Miyazaki 2, Kumamoto 1, Kagoshima 1