In the 10 months since an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiici nuclear power plant, people in Japan have engaged in some of the most dramatic activism in the country’s recent history. Mothers have stormed public meetings. Angry citizens have taken to the streets in numbers not seen in 50 years. Concession by painfully-won concession, they have forced the government to start taking radiation health concerns more seriously and rethink current energy policy.
Photo by John Ashburne
One thing most people in Japan hadn’t had a chance to do in those ten months was come together with activists, politicians, and scientists from other countries to talk about what Fukushima means, what the world’s energy future should look like, and how to get there. Last weekend, at the Global Conference for a Nuclear Free World, civil society organizations made that happen.
The two-day event in Yokohama (near Tokyo) drew 11,500 participants, 200 community groups, and six national legislators from Japan, along with 100 prominent anti-nuclear activists and renewable energy experts invited from 30 countries. Whether the connections and momentum established at the conference will translate into meaningful action remains to be seen. But regardless of political implications, the human energy at the event was amazing.
“Could this be Japan’s Occupy movement?” mused one veteran domestic journalist as the conference wrapped up. Another remarked that in 15 years of covering Japan’s anti-nuclear movement he’d never seen so many young people come out for an event. Every lecture was packed, every hallway buzzed with excited conversation, and at every opportunity ordinary people were putting their questions about energy, nuclear power, and radiation safety directly to experts from around the world.
Meanwhile, many of the international visitors were experiencing post-Fukushima Japan for the first time. Hong Shen Han, a Taiwanese anti-nuclear activist who joined a pre-conference tour of Fukushima Prefecture, said he would share what he witnessed back home. “People in Taiwan haven’t yet understood how terrible the impacts of the accident are on people’s every day lives,” he said.
European Green parliamentarian Rebecca Harms, from Germany, was on the tour too. “I left Fukushima in a mood of shock. People there are left alone with a lot of open questions, anxieties, and doubts,” she told a packed conference hall on Saturday. She urged Japanese citizens to learn from the recent experience of Germany, where, after the Fukushima accident, citizens forced the government to turn away from nuclear power. “If your government is refusing to phase out [nuclear reactors], you should tell them you’re going to phase them out of power!” she said, and the audience broke into laughter and applause.
Yet despite the crowd’s enthusiasm, it’s unclear whether the wider public can muster the political will to do that. For instance, activists have been gathering signatures to hold referendums on nuclear power in several cities, which could send a powerful message to politicians still clinging to established energy policy. But while enough signatures have already been gathered in Osaka, activists involved with the project said that reaching their goal in Tokyo — Japan’s largest metropolitan area and the most important politically — could be difficult. Without success in Tokyo, a national referendum would be hard to pull off.
Other questions lingered at the end of the event as well. How long would widespread interest in nuclear issues last? Are activists strategic and savvy enough to battle powerful nuclear power and fossil fuel industries? Most importantly, will they be able to seize the opportunity for social and political change that Fukushima has opened up? Many participants left the conference saying they were determined to do so. The next year or so should make clear whether that feeling is strong and widespread enough to transform Japan.