March 3, 2021

Japanese Island’s Activists Resist Nuclear Industry’s Allure

The move, while reminiscent of a Greenpeace action, was highly unusual in understated Japan. But it was emblematic of the islanders’ nearly three-decade fight against the powers arrayed against them — their own government and the nuclear industry it has championed.

“The sea is our livelihood,” said Ms. Takebayashi, 68, whose family has fished for sea bream, mackerel and other local delicacies for generations. “We will never let anyone sully it.”

The story of Iwaishima’s battle has become something of a touchstone in Japan, especially among those who feel uneasy in the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for having accepted decades of government assurances that nuclear power was safe. And because the plans to build the plant are closer to approval than any others in Japan, many antinuclear activists see the island’s struggle as their best hope of ending the country’s reliance on nuclear energy.

If the plans are scuttled, they believe, the decision is likely to set a precedent that will end the construction of nuclear plants in Japan.

Iwaishima’s tale of resistance started in 1982. The town of Kaminoseki — made up of Iwaishima, two islets and the Murotsu peninsula off Japan’s main island, Honshu — was one of many backwaters that seemed ripe for the revitalization that the nuclear industry promised.

With no industry to speak of beyond small-scale farming and fisheries, the town struggled to keep up with Japan’s rapid changes in the postwar era.

So in 1982, when the Chugoku Electric Power Company first raised the idea of building a nuclear power plant on the peninsula’s deserted tip, many residents were enthusiastic.

Chugoku Electric wooed them, paying for lavish “study tours” to nuclear reactors around the country — trips that included stops at hot springs, according to residents who participated. It also offered local fishing cooperatives compensation for the loss of fishing grounds that would be filled in to build the 3.5-million-square-foot plant.

“The town needed the money,” said Katsumi Inoue, 67, who led a movement supporting the plant. “Kaminoseki was shrinking. We needed to grow.”

But Iwaishima, an island of about 1,000 people just two and a half miles from the planned site, was not convinced. The island’s fishing cooperative voted overwhelmingly against the plans. On a chilly morning in January 1983, almost 400 islanders cut short their New Year’s festivities to stage a protest march, the men in their fishing boots and the women in bonnets, through alleyways lined with stone walls.

It was the first of more than 1,000 protests the islanders would carry out, some of them involving scenes of high drama to rival Ms. Takebayashi’s 2009 protest.

In one protest this year, a small armada of fishermen raced out to sea to head off the utility’s vessels. “No nuclear power plant here!” they shouted, their boats’ engines in full throttle. “This sea does not belong to you.”

Not even the residents of Iwaishima are exactly sure why they were willing to challenge the establishment when so many of their compatriots were not. The best they can venture is that their livelihoods depend on the sea too much to take a chance, and that if disaster struck, it would be much harder to flee.

Beyond that, many of the island’s men had, over time, left for work elsewhere. Some of them worked in nuclear plants, and they returned home with worrisome stories. They would become part of the front line in the island’s struggle.

Kazuo Isobe, 88, was one of them. He left the island in Japan’s postwar chaos and initially worked at construction sites. But in the 1970s, he started work at the newly opened Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

He worked to clean up radioactive buildup at the plant’s No. 2 reactor, using rags while sweltering in a protective suit.

His radiation records from the time, which he provided, show he received about 850 millirems of radiation during just three months of work — about the amount of radiation allowed for nuclear workers in a year, and more than eight times as much as the limit set for civilians.

When Mr. Isobe heard, on a trip back to Iwaishima in 1982, that Chugoku Electric planned to build a nuclear plant just across the water, he was “terrified.”

“I had seen with my own eyes that radiation is hard to contain,” Mr. Isobe said. “I told everyone in the neighborhood not to agree to anything they said.”

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