Aileen Mioko Smith

Aileen Mioko Smith and her late husband, W. Eugene Smith, gained worldwide recognition in the 1970s for their photojournalism that exposed mercury poisoning in Minamata, Japan. Since then, she has turned her energies to environmental work. She currently heads Green Action, an NPO based in Kyoto that advocates for a nuclear free Japan.

When Koe Magazine interviewed you over two years ago, your organization’s stated goal of a nuclear-free Japan seemed almost quixotic to us given Japan’s enormous energy needs and the powerful pro-nuclear lobby. Now, however, public sentiment seems to be growing for an end to nuclear energy. How far are we from a tipping point? What has to happen now for the realization of a nuclear-free Japan?

First of all, there has been a movement for a nuclear-free Japan since the late 1960s, though it just hasn’t been that visible. Also, there have been a number of referendums and opposition protests that have forced authorities to give up on planned nuclear reactor sites. Mie and Wakayama prefectures are examples. If there hadn’t been such opposition then our dependence on nuclear energy would have been much higher, as in France.

Nobody really realizes this now, but we are actually physically more phased out of nuclear power today than even Germany. 96% of our nuclear capacity is now shut down. If nuclear plants are not re-started at the end of April, then we will go back zero dependence. For this to be a permanent change, we can’t look to the central government in Tokyo. Policy is the last thing that will change. The committee for the long-term plan for nuclear energy is appointed by METI, and there are only a token few on the committee who are concerned about nuclear energy. It’s a stacked committee.

Right now, the government hasn’t been able to restart plants. They’re trying. The problem is getting these plants ready for approval. The plants that are furthest ahead in completing their stress tests are Oi units three and four in Fukui, owned by Kansai electric, but the nuclear safety commission has yet to finalize its approval. That’s an informal approval. After that the chief cabinet officer and several ministers have to make the political decision that the plant may restart. Then they have to take it to the local authorities, which are Fukui prefecture and Oi town, to get approval. Then it goes back to the chief cabinet officer and ministers for final approval.

So anywhere along that process public opposition could reach a pitch where it stymies any further progress?

Exactly. For example, according to a recent survey, a majority of residents in Fukui are concerned about a restart. Also the governor of Fukui has stated that stress tests are not sufficient for a restart, and that new, provisional safety standards need to be developed reflecting on the lessons learned from Fukushima. The Diet has initiated its own investigation of the Fukushima accident and that will not conclude until June. An investigation on tsunami risk in Oi will not be completed until November of this year—the government says the tsunami investigation and the restart reviews are two separate issues! Still, in Fukui prefecture, restarting looks quite difficult.

The Ehime governor, however, has pretty much stated that if the national government says it is safe, then restarts are OK. Public opinion in Ehime, as reflected in newspapers and the Chamber of Commerce, indicates concern. But again, it comes down to local authorities and there is no clear-cut opposition there.

If Ehime moves forward and there were some sort of accident, then it would likely affect nearby prefectures, like Yamaguchi or Hiroshima, and yet they don’t have any voice in this process, correct?

Yes. But in Kansai, for example, because the Fukui plant is slated to possibly restart first, the governors of nearby Kyoto and Shiga prefectures are seeking nuclear safety agreements with Kansai electric that are the same as those with Oi town. Obama city, right next to Oi, is also demanding that.

The governor of Shiga is saying that the estuaries that lead to lake Biwa are within 30km of the plants, and that this is the source for drinking water for households and businesses numbering eight million people. Therefore, Kansai electric should sign an agreement with them.

The other issue that could come to the forefront if restarts gain steam is evacuations. The standard evacuation around any plant will be moved from 10km to 30km—that’s what the nuclear safety commission is saying—and up to 50km, people will need iodine tablets.

In all these talks about restarting, local authorities are key. With evacuation zones extended, other municipalities in the area are becoming vocal, too. They may not have any legal say, but they do carry political weight.

There is a possibility then that by the end of April, restarts will not happen. Which then means that Japan will have zero power generated by nuclear facilities. That will have great psychological effect. People will ask, do we now go back to dependence on nuclear power?

Doesn’t this, though, entail a return to coal and oil-fired power plants to sustain us?

What happened last year in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area was significant. It cut electricity use by 20% overall—18% during peak time. We’re still gathering data on this, but we heard from a Diet member that a questionnaire distributed to businesses indicated a majority were positive about the changes—they were glad they did it because they were able to greatly reduce their utility costs. So it is possible for a large metropolitan area to achieve conservation, and that’s the cleanest energy you can get.

Now, in the short term, CO2 emissions will increase as we go back to coal and oil, but Green Action’s view is that after the Kyoto Protocol, the reason better conservation and efficiency policies were delayed was that on paper, officials were saying they would deal with emissions by building more nuclear plants. They said they’d build twenty-one nuclear power plants by the end of 2010. Only eight got built. But because they had that on paper—because they had a ‘plan’—they did not have to kick in more conservation, efficiency or reusable energy policies. Nuclear power has been the big roadblock in moving forward in these areas. We think that in a ten-year span we will actually have less CO2 emissions, despite a short-term spike.

As for alternative energy, I’ve said conservation. We also need smart grids where electricity comes at a community level. A huge solar plant only in Fukui streaming electricity to Kansai is not the answer. Rather, if you are in a situation where you are a “prosumer”, where you produce and consume at the same time, then you know that when you turn out your light, you’re going to be able to sell that extra electricity. You have a different relationship with energy.

One important point is that we’ve mainly been talking about replacing nuclear energy. The bigger issue is looking at our overall energy usage, and we need to look at transportation, for example. Nuclear energy was only fueling a small percentage of our energy. We need to talk about that other 90%.

It’s chilling to think of your warnings several years ago about the imminent dangers of nuclear energy in Japan. Do you think the Fukushima disaster was to be expected?

In Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, during the 2007 quake, the seismological movement was greater than the design. Of course, they were proud that the plant was still OK even though it shook more than it was designed for. The issue is that their calculations were off. And every year since 1974, local opposition, including some legislators, has voiced concern. The same was true of Fukushima. Other sites, too. So seismological risks have been addressed, but it isn’t just that. The real problem goes back to the nuclear regulatory regime. It’s never been democratic and safety issues were not addressed. It was just a matter of time before something happened.

Do you think it is a matter of time before a site like Hamaoka becomes a disaster of enormous proportions?

Yes, I think so. But the problem with Hamaoka is that even if the plants are shut down, the spent fuel pools are still there. Simply shutting down the plants won’t do the job, as we know from Fukushima. We have to stabilize those pools. Until that happens, we’re not safe. Perhaps the next most dangerous place after Hamaoka is Wakasa Bay in Fukui. There are fourteen plants in that area, plus one that has been decommissioned, but the spent fuel pools are still there.

The big problem again is that the lack of a proper regulatory regime caused the Fukushima accident. The head of the committee for the long-term nuclear energy plan was Shô Nasu, who was also the chairman and president of TEPCO for many years (he was also at the center of scandal in 2002 when TEPCO falsely reported safety violations). The Atomic Energy Commission picked him to be chair. Now, I’m not saying that if you have a truly independent, democratic committee then you won’t have accidents, but in this situation we were clearly headed for something.

You witnessed the mercury poisoning at Minamata first hand. Do you think there will be similar long-term effects in Fukushima?

From what we know about radiation, there will be effects from exposure. The extent? It’s hard to tell because we don’t really know exactly how much people were exposed during the first week. Interestingly, the Japanese Workers’ Accident Compensation Law compensates workers who have received five cumulative millisieverts or more per year and contract cancer. The lowest level for someone who has been compensated was 5.2. That was an adult worker. Children are known to be much more vulnerable. Chernobyl was mandatory evacuation at 5 millisieverts annual exposure. In Japan, they’ve raised the limit to 20 before you get any sort of official recognition for supported evacuation. There’s a total contradiction.

And is decontamination really that effective? After residents cleaned, the radiation levels crept up again. Even when local authorities do it, levels come down less than 20% from before decontamination. There have even been cases where they later measured and contamination went up. So the reduction is not great, it takes a long time, and it’s very costly. Right now, citizens are being held hostage because when they ask for official evacuation rights, they’re told, no, we’re going to decontaminate your area. Also, they measure radiation at one meter off the ground. Lower to the ground, contamination is greater and will reach over 20. Parents are saying, well, my child is not over one meter. But then the government repeats the standard is to measure at one meter. Again, children are the most vulnerable.

Green Action (Japan):




























Green Action (Japan):

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