Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, public support for nuclear power in Japan has declined sharply, and anti-nuclear politicians have become empowered in their own parties or formed new, often single-issue parties to leverage popular support. Even the relatively pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is facing challenges in openly promoting nuclear power. At the same time, the LDP must remain mindful of nuclear facility host communities, which continue to support nuclear power, and of the larger business community and the politically powerful regional utilities, which remain committed to nuclear power for economic reasons.
Before March 11, 2011, the Japanese public was broadly, if cautiously, supportive of their country’s continued use of nuclear power. For example, according to a poll carried out by the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, roughly 60 percent of the population supported increasing the number of nuclear power plants. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) adopted the nuclear expansion policy of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) after defeating them in the 2009 elections. Support for the use of nuclear energy did not equate with resounding public confidence in nuclear power plants, however. By the late 1980s, following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents in the United States and the former Soviet Union, polls showed a solid majority of Japanese had become somewhat insecure about nuclear power. Anti-nuclear groups in Japan grew in membership and political strength during the 1980s and 1990s. This movement includes the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), the Hangenpatsu Undo Zenkoku Renraku Kai [National Anti-Nuclear Liaison Group] which publishes the Hangenpatsu Shinbun [Anti-Nuclear Newspaper], and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ Committee for the Protection of the Environment.
The late 1990s brought a series of nuclear accidents in Japan, including the sodium leak at the Monju fast reactor in December 1995 and the criticality accident at the Tokaimura fuel preparation plant in 1999. The fact that the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC, later changed to JNC) – operator of the Monju reactor – covered up the sodium leak when first releasing data to the press affected public confidence in both the organization and the nuclear power sector. The accident at the Tokaimura plant, operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co. (JCO), a subsidiary of Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., resulted in the deaths of two workers due to fatal radiation exposure levels. Although the plant was not directly part of the electricity production fuel cycle, the accident further raised public concern. The early 2000s deepened this unease as whistle blowers revealed that TEPCO and other firms had regularly falsified safety reports to regulators.
Despite more than a decade of troubles, the Japanese public did not instantly turn against nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster. According to poll data compiled by the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF), those who supported maintaining or expanding the use of nuclear power (pro-nuclear respondents) outnumbered those who supported decreasing or abolishing the use of nuclear power (anti-nuclear respondents) for the first few months after March 11. Support for nuclear power slowly declined in the ensuing months, and pro-nuclear respondents slipped to 25 percent in an October 2011 poll by NHK. Both the forced evacuations of Fukushima residents from towns inundated with radiation and worries about contamination in the food chain likely contributed to this shift. Similar numbers were reflected in a spring 2012 Pew Research Center poll, with 70 percent of respondents supporting a decreased role for nuclear power in Japan.
Since winning last December’s Lower House elections and reclaiming the prime ministership, the LDP has sought the restart of Japan’s reactors and even hinted at the possibility of building new reactors in the future. Yet the public has not been convinced. A February 2013 Asahi Shimbun poll found that roughly one-third of those polled supported nuclear power, and that 59 percent favored phasing out nuclear power by 2040.
As support for nuclear power dropped following the meltdowns, the number of people taking to the streets of Tokyo and other cities to protest the use of nuclear power grew, and a more national anti-nuclear movement has emerged. In the immediate months after the core meltdowns at Fukushima, crowds of up to 10,000 people regularly gathered in Tokyo in anti-nuclear rallies. The anti-nuclear protests swelled to upwards of 60,000 people by mid-September 2011 and the momentum carried over into 2012 when an estimated 75,000 people turned out for a July 2012 protest in Tokyo. The diversity among the participants indicates how far anti-nuclear sentiment has spread throughout Japanese society. This said, while demonstrations continue to take place every Friday night near the Prime Minister’s office, the number of participants is declining. More narrowly, research on Japanese host communities shows that those villages immediately proximal to nuclear power plants continue to support nuclear power because of the political economy of side payments (some villages receive more than $15 million in benefits each year). Those slightly further away are now against the program as the negative externalities have become more obvious since 3/11.
The anti-nuclear movement also resulted in the formation of new anti-nuclear politicians and political parties in the run-up to the December 2012 Lower House election. The Japanese Communist Party had long opposed nuclear power but mostly remained on the fringe of the country’s politics. The Fukushima accident brought anti-nuclear politics to the mainstream. For the election, Your Party and the Tomorrow Party of Japan also took strong anti-nuclear power stances. The DPJ had already marked its stance by announcing a plan to phase out nuclear power in the 2030s, and New Komeito seemed to agree with this plan. Despite this political expression, anti-nuclear sentiment did not translate well at the ballot box due to overarching economic concerns and dissatisfaction with the DPJ, and the historically pro-nuclear LDP won convincingly.
The anti-nuclear movement will provide a challenge to the LDP and business community’s desire to restart Japan’s nuclear sector. The Japanese public expects the new Nuclear Regulation Authority to strictly enforce safety regulations at existing nuclear facilities. Whether anti-nuclear sentiment will maintain its strength at the local and national levels and influence policy makers will strongly shape Japanese nuclear energy policy.