At the invitation of the Japanese Greens I went on a trip from 15 to 20 May that took me along and inside the 30-km zone in Fukushima Prefecture, through Shizuoka Prefecture (in which the at-risk Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant is located) and to the cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
It gave me the opportunity, two months after the maximum credible incident (MCI) in Fukushima Daichi, to find out for myself whether and how the nuclear accident is changing Japanese society.
My mission on this trip was to show how nuclear power can be phased out and the switch made to renewable energy structures. I also wanted to shed light on the role of grassroots movements and the Green Party in Germany, and thus to motivate similar grassroots movements in Japan.
I had a packed six-day programme – giving speeches at conferences, meeting local grassroots movements and Green activists, talking to those affected by the disaster, to volunteer helpers and people working in administration, visits to power plants, radiation measurements and interviews.
In the past, Japan has not had a culture of demonstrating. Taking to the streets to make one’s demands heard and criticizing the government is not part of the Japanese mentality. That is why 15,000 people demonstrating after the MCI in Fukushima is quite revolutionary for this country. The first grassroots movements are emerging. The experience of a nuclear accident, plus the government’s policy of disinformation is politicising people, although so far by no means right across the country. Something is afoot in Japanese society, though. People are also very upset by the sudden loss of trust in the high-tech they had previously had blind faith in and which they believed they were dependent on.
To date, Japan has covered its (huge) energy needs through nuclear power (26%), coal (25%), gas (28%), oil (just under 11%) and hydropower (7.8%). Hardly any use has so far been made of other renewable energies. Energy demands have been rising steadily for decades. Since there is nowhere in Japan that is free of the risk of earthquakes, all 54 nuclear power plants are located in regions that are more or less earthquake-prone. It is not only the stricken nuclear power plants that have been taken off the grid in response to the MCI. The five reactors in Hamaoka, which are especially at risk on account of tectonic shifts, are also currently offline. The shortfall in electricity generated by nuclear power is being made up by bringing oil-fired power stations online. In the past, the efficient use of energy was never an issue in Japan. Savings potentials are obvious even at a superficial glance. Japan has all that nature has to offer with which to make the switch to renewable energy structures: sun, wind, water, accessible geothermal energy, coastlines along which to make use of wave energy technology that still needs to be developed. As a high-tech and research location the country also has the technical and scientific prerequisites. Japan’s phase-out of nuclear power should begin with Hamaoka.
The Japanese Greens organized this trip to canvass support for the phase-out of nuclear power and the switch to renewable energy structures, for new grassroots movements and for a Green party. The week was a great success in that respect, but contact with and support from the German Green Party must be maintained and consolidated.
I have drawn two conclusions for Germany from the MCI in Fukushima: Firstly, if not even a high-tech country like Japan can protect its nuclear power plants from the forces of nature, then every country must take the risk posed by nuclear power seriously; secondly – and this did not become clear to me until after my meetings with those with political responsibility in Japan and after hearing citizens so often complain of the lack of information – any government would struggle to cope with the consequences of a serious nuclear accident. The problem Japan is facing is not the Japanese policy of disinformation, but the problem of nuclear power.
Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, May 2011
Saturday, 14 May
Berlin – Helsinki – Tokyo
Day 1 – Tokyo
I arrived at Tokyo Haneda Airport in the morning and was met by the Japanese Green activist ‘Ricky’. He organized everything, made sure everything ran smoothly and rearranged interviews when the German TV programme ‘Morgenmagazin’ suddenly butted in. He was accompanied at the airport by Nobuko Taguchi, a genteel, elderly lady who had spent some time living in Freiburg with her husband, a professor. She reminded me of German women after Chernobyl. The events in Fukushima were a wake-up call, rousing her to take action and to join the Japanese Greens. The two were my constant companions throughout the trip.
In the afternoon we were joined by Tomoyuki Takada, a professional interpreter who once even worked for Helmut Kohl. He’s from Kyoto, lives in North Rhine-Westphalia with his German wife and was hired spontaneously by Mrs Taguchi. You could tell he’d been in Germany for a while – he was more forward than the Japanese traditionally are and very angry because of what was (not) happening in his country following the MCI.
The first big conference with 350 participants in the Olympic Center began at 6:30 p.m. Other speakers included Tetsuya Iida from the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and Mieko Takenobu, a professor at the University of Waka, who talked about the social consequences of the MCI. Her key message was that it was women who were suffering most. The traditional division of roles still applied in the more agricultural prefecture of Fukushima. Women tended to place themselves and their needs behind those of others, even in the emergency shelters. It was they who were responsible for most agricultural activities. Thoughts about the future were causing clinical depression, even in men, she said. There was no privacy to be had in the emergency shelters, which was causing additional stress. Mrs Takenobu also suspected that people from the exclusion zone are being discriminated against and reported that some already feared that in future they would only be able to marry other people from the exclusion zone. She feared that refugees would be given no more than material assistance and that, for example, the much-needed psychological counselling offices would not be set up.
Mr Iida is a Japanese pioneer when it comes to renewable energies. He is calling for a Japanese energy turnaround.
During the ensuing discussion I was asked lots more in-depth questions about how the German Greens managed to bring about the nuclear power phase-out, what nuclear power will be replaced with, how grassroots movements arose, how Germany reacted to Chernobyl and what Fukushima means for us. These questions came up again and again over the next six days.
Day 2 – Fukushima Prefecture
[singlepic id=14 w=320 h=240 float=right]We started the day early, taking the Shinkansen to Fukushima, then switched to cars. The group was bigger now; we had measuring instruments and protective clothing with us. We drove south-west from Fukushima City, which is 80 km from Fukushima Daichi. Radiation was low in the city (< 1 µSv), but we also got readings of 3 µSv directly over a drainage grill. When we were 50 km away from the stricken power plants we still got a stable reading of nearly 3 µSv inside the car. More and more often we came across dry rice paddies. Cultivation has stopped because the farmers wouldn’t be able to sell their harvest. We drove into the 30-km exclusion zone and turned north near the coast. There are no signs or warnings when you enter the 30-km zone. The area lookrd empty, but also strangely unscathed. Shortly before we reached the coastal town of Shinchi we were confronted with the aftermath of the tsunami for the first time. Huge piles of rubbish that used to constitute families’ lives. The closer we got to the coast the more desolate the surroundings were. Finally, we arrived at the port of Soma, which was completely destroyed. Massive port buildings had been ripped apart, ships perched on what remained of roofs or terraces. A lot had already been cleared away here, but the lasting impression was still an apocalyptic one!
We had arranged to meet a volunteer who normally looks after Iraqi children who have fallen sick following exposure to depleted uranium. Now she is helping a farmer’s wife whose farm was relatively unscathed by the tsunami because it stood on slightly higher ground. The farmer’s wife was worried about the garden vegetables she was growing for herself. We got a reading of 0.5 µSv – too high. She’ll eat them anyway, because what else is she to do?
[singlepic id=30 w=320 h=240 float=left]We drove south along the coast. The atmosphere was eerie. An entire armada of ships lay strewn across the fields. Never again will they be launched into water. We drove through the 30-km zone for a while, then turned east. Shortly after leaving the 30-km zone the reading suddenly increased. Inside the car we got a stable 5 µSv. We approached Nagatoro. The Geiger counter started clicking. We got out and got a reading of 11 µSv. Directly beneath a drainpipe we got a reading of 500 µSv. No-one stayed near the drainpipe for long. It is a well-known fact that this area is highly contaminated. It is regarded as evacuated. But around 10% of the population is still living there. They are exposing themselves to radiation levels that in three months exceed the permissible annual dose for someone working in a nuclear power plant. If they stay, then it is highly likely they will suffer ill-effects.
We travelled on to Iidate. This city, some 45 km from the damaged nuclear power plant, is also known to be contaminated. Iidate was in the process of being evacuated. Clearly, there is a corridor of highly contaminated land at least 50 km wide stretching from Fukushima Daichi from a north-westerly direction. But it is also very clear that too little information is available. Perhaps readings aren’t being taken everywhere. We met with the Mayor of Iidate. Despite the stress of the evacuation he took the time to meet us. ‘We can’t expect any more help from Tepco,’ he replied in answer to my question. He has to stand by and watch his community dissolving. He said that everyone will come back one day. Eco-farming was gaining ground all around Iidate, which is why it is doubly bitter that the soil is contaminated now.
We spent the night in Yonezawa in the ‘Group-home Yuinoki’, part of a social project run by the Yokoham Network, which is part of the Green movement. The Group-home is a kind of old people’s home, but other people also go there to eat. We were served traditional Japanese food and slept on mats on the floor. There was an atmosphere of self-evident mutual solidarity.
Day 3 – Yonezawa
[singlepic id=28 w=320 h=240 float=right]We had arranged to meet with refugees in Yonezawa. Mrs Ito from Soma-South told us how she and her husband – without having any specific information about radiation levels – left their hometown on their own initiative because they were concerned for their four-year-old daughter. They couldn’t get any petrol anywhere along the coast, so they drove north-west until the petrol they had ran out. They were lucky to end up in Yonezawa. People here are saving electricity as a sign of solidarity. When they went into a shop to buy kitchen utensils, they were given them as a present. There are now 1,000 refugees in Yonezawa. Mrs Ito suspects that refugees are not being treated the same way everywhere. Japan is having to cope with three waves of refugees: the first wave came after the tsunami, the second fled the radiation on their own initiative, then the third wave was officially evacuated on account of the radiation.
Another couple told us they wanted to stay at home, but were concerned following a telephone call. A friend rang to tell them that the road near where they lived had been closed off. Cars were allowed out but not in. And so this young couple also decided on the spur of the moment to flee for the sake of their children.
The refugees have lost everything: their home, their livelihood, their social network. They spoke of their hope of returning as soon as they can. But they suspect that will not be possible. One of the refugees had a visionary idea of what could be done with the uninhabitable area: it could be covered with solar and wind energy plants. But he was less certain about his own future. ‘Where can we live?’ he asked.
Nuclear power was never an issue for those refugees we talked to. Now they are even developing an awareness of the problem of nuclear waste. They told me there are some who think the nuclear waste could be exported to Mongolia. They have a feeling there is something not quite right about that and want to raise the attention of the international community. And they also asked for pressure to be exerted on the Japanese government to create jobs and build houses for the refugees – far enough away, not just outside the 30-km zone, which is where most of the temporary housing is located.
Day 4 – Osaka, Kyoto
We headed south-west on the Shinkansen, having spent the night in Tokyo again as it was half-way to our destination. We then travelled through a large area devoted to green tea production. The tea is contaminated despite the fact that the area is 500 km from Fukushima Daichi. During the drying process the tea will become so contaminated that radiation levels will exceed permissible limits. I was told that the wind blew out to sea from Daichi and then back onto land 500 km further south-west.
Suddenly I spotted my first two Japanese wind turbines. They belong to Suzuki. I learned that many Japanese companies have their own electricity generators because it is too expensive for them to buy in electricity.
We reached Osaka in the early afternoon. A press conference at which I reported on my impressions of Fukushima Prefecture was followed in the early evening by another big conference on the nuclear power phase-out. We had to leave quickly after I gave my speech because we were expected at another conference in Kyoto.
[singlepic id=35 w=320 h=240 float=left]The nuclear power phase-out was also the topic in Kyoto. During a non-public meeting aimed at networking various activists and initiatives that followed the conference, I was again asked detailed questions about what course German grassroots movements and the Greens had taken. There was a great desire to learn from Germany and specifically the German Green Party.
Day 5 – Shizuoka Prefecture
We took the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Kakegawa and then continued on by car again. We reached the municipality in which the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant is located. There are two local Green politicians here. They told me the problem was that the five reactor blocks are built right on the spot where three tectonic plates – the Eurasian, the Philippine and the Pacific – meet. The Tokai quake occurs here every 120 years on average, last time registering 8.4 on the Richter scale. The last Tokai quake happened in 1854, so the next one is long overdue. Warnings have been issued for a long time that a big earthquake is imminent. In 2002 citizens filed an action for the two oldest blocks to be shut down. Chubu Electric Power, which operates the plant, rejected a settlement put forward by the court so as to avoid making a partial confession that the nuclear power plant was unsafe. Both blocks were subsequently shut down ‘for economic reasons’ and there were plans to build a sixth block to replace them. Following the MCI in Fukushima, Governor Kawakasu and Prime Minister Kan stopped the construction of this sixth block and took the remaining three blocks off the grid. Not permanently, however, since they are to go back online in two years from now, by which time a 15-metre high tsunami protection wall will have been built in front of the nuclear power plant.
Resentment about this policy is growing in Shizuoka Prefecture. The people there want the reactors to be shut down permanently. Local authorities want the 10-km evacuation zone to be extended to 30 km. In contrast to the more agricultural Fukushima Prefecture, this is a densely populated economic area with a population of 3.8 million. Given the normal wind direction, Greater Tokyo and its 12 million inhabitants would also immediately be affected if an accident were to occur here.
We had a look round Hamaoka. The local politicians had brought with them a petition signed by citizens that they wanted to give to the operators. The plant operator had declined to meet with me and the local politicians. They sent a sub-department manager to accept the petition, which he did without saying a word. According to him, he was not authorized to enter into discussion with us. We had the press and TV in tow, so the hand-over and the operating company’s behaviour were made public.
We had an appointment with the Deputy Mayor (the Mayor had sent his apologies). When I asked him his opinion he deferred to the government – it was the government that ordered that the nuclear power plants be switched off, it held responsibility. He was worried about jobs. He would not admit to being worried that the same thing that happened in Fukushima Daichi could happen in Hamaoka. He didn’t seem to take in my reference to the potential of renewable energies to create new jobs. He accepted the local politicians’ petition without saying a word.
I then had a meeting with Governor Kawakatsu. He spoke perfect English. At the request of rest of the group I spoke German and had the interpreter translate what I said – they wanted to be able to understand what was being said at the meeting. Mr Kawakatsu continued speaking English. My personal impression was that he didn’t want what he said to be laid open to interpretation. This meeting was much more substantial than all my other meetings with those who, to my mind, hold responsibility. The Governor is a politician and not an administrator. (I have in the meantime come to hold our German-style federalism and its subsidiarity principle in high regard!) Governor Kawakatsu is worried. He knows that the tsunami protection wall will not be enough to guarantee safety. In the course of the meeting I got the impression that he thought it would be better if the nuclear power plants were shut down permanently – despite putting forward the argument that the tsunami protection wall was necessary anyway to protect the fuel rod basins. He also seemed to know that nuclear power cannot guarantee the energy supply of the future. And nevertheless he backpedalled when it came to the key issue: he trusted the operators, he said, and that they would do the right thing out of concern for their own employees.
The main topic at the press conference that followed this meeting was the potential MCI in Hamaoka. This was more of an issue here than the actual MCI in Fukushima.
Questions raised in the evening at an event organized on the initiative of local Green activists included what nuclear power will be replaced with, how quickly, how reliably, how does the Renewable Energies Act work, what about resistance to the construction of wind farms, and how do you bring together heterogeneous groups to form one anti-nuclear power movement? It was clear to all those present that the nuclear power phase-out will only work if it is part of a switch to renewable energy structures. My speeches all included, as a fixed final element, the advantages Japan has when it comes to effecting an energy turnaround: there is more sun, more water and much more wind here than in Germany, there are endless coastlines that are crying out to be explored and along which wave energy technology can be used, well-trained people, technological expertise and an innovative economy. Being at the mercy of nuclear power does not fit well with the Japanese people’s traditional respect for nature. Wind farms would suit the beautiful coast off Hamaoka much better than the planned 15-metre-high wall.
Day 6 – Tokyo
The Shinkansen took us back to Tokyo. The last day was dedicated to reviewing the week. I had diverse one-to-one interviews with journalists from the larger daily newspapers like the Kyodo News, Mainichi Daily News and The Asahi Shimbun. Then it was on to a two-hour general press conference. Someone asked me whether I would be prepared to give one more interview later on to Yasami Iwakami, a journalist and important multiplier for the anti-nuclear resistance who couldn’t make it to the press conference. Of course I said yes – the Japanese Greens’ invitation to a German Green one month after the disaster in Fukushima ought to have as much added value as possible. At 6 p.m. we first went to the Tokyo Greens, who had invited us to a farewell dinner in an organic restaurant. There was a buffet just like one the German Greens would have laid out – that is apart from the big pots of rice and miso soup. The atmosphere was similar too. The Green lifestyle!
I found it hard to leave this friendly group of Green activists early, but I had promised to give the interview. We drove through Tokyo by night to meet the journalist Mr Iwakami. He spreads ‘the news behind the news’. Critical groups trust him. He had found it increasingly difficult to get his articles published in the traditional media, so he now works with live stream and YouTube. We began the live interview at 9 p.m. and agreed to do 60 minutes. It turned into two hours. The interpreter in particular was exhausted when we finished at 11 p.m. But we were happy. We got across all of our messages! The Japanese-Green group accompanying me was happy too. The trip was a big investment for a party that still has no structures and hardly any income. Everyone gave their all this week.
Saturday, 21 May
Tokyo – Helsinki – Berlin