Chieko Natori doesn't look like an activist. On a January day in Tokyo, her tiny frame is lost in the boho-chic layers of a Japanese yuppie. She carries no banner or petition just rice crackers that she hopes will entice her son to walk with her. He ignores her, sinking to the sidewalk and refusing to move.
Though Natori, 38, may not be having any luck shifting her toddler, since Japan's 2011 nuclear disaster she has mobilized thousands of citizens. "I never did anything like this before," says the onetime food-and-gardening blogger. But last March, after explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant sent a toxic plume over hundreds of kilometers, she read reports of private citizens finding radiation "hot spots" near her suburb of Misato, about 24 km from central Tokyo. "Is Misato O.K.?" she wondered on her blog.
Not a simple question, she discovered. The local authorities weren't measuring radiation, so Natori founded a group to pressure them to start doing so. She got them to test schoolyards and school-lunch samples. Unsatisfied with official readings, parents took their own measurements. In one school, they found levels as high as 5.76 microsieverts per hour. (A microsievert measures radiation dosage as a comparison, a full-mouth dental X-ray emits a dose of 150 microsieverts.) The school reading was well over the level of 1 microsievert at which decontamination is advised. Though the school didn't accept the parents' findings at first, it eventually cleared some contaminated soil from its grounds. "They just want to say [things are] safe to get people to be quiet," says Natori.
But in the year since March 11, 2011 when a 9.0 earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan, the world watched its first live tsunami and a nuclear meltdown occurred at three reactors many Japanese have been defiantly unquiet. There are now countless worried citizens and newbie activists like Natori. The health issues posed by Fukushima are not their only concern. The refusal of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to acknowledge that Fukushima was capable of being crippled by a tsunami coupled with the government's failure to insist on more stringent precautions has many wondering if the relationship between the government and the power companies is too cozy, and if ordinary Japanese come last. While politicians have spent most of the past decade fixated on internal power plays, their constituents have been mired in a moribund economy, a widening wealth gap and a lack of opportunity for the nation's youth. Japanese society is also aging faster than any other in history. With successive administrations unable to think their way out of the malaise, some are asking whether Tokyo is capable of addressing citizens' concerns on any issue, nuclear or otherwise.
As many as 20,000 people died in the twin disasters of 3/11 and ruins still strew the coast. Only 5% of some 23 million tons of debris have been disposed of the piles forming a daily reminder of the massive task still ahead. However long that takes, dealing with Fukushima will take longer. The damaged plant is an ongoing nightmare. The government has declared it in a state of cold shutdown, meaning that the temperature of water used to cool fuel in the reactors stays below boiling point and radiation emissions are within legal limits. But Tokyo acknowledges it could take up to 40 years to fully dismantle Fukushima. For now, TEPCO continues to flood the reactors to keep fuel from overheating, creating huge amounts of contaminated wastewater that has leaked in at least 30 places around the facility since the end of January.
Breaking the Silence
Fukushima has changed the way the world thinks about a technology until recently hailed as a clean alternative to fossil fuel. Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy have all pledged since 3/11 to phase nuclear power out of their countries' futures. Japan hasn't done so, but a significant anti-nuclear movement is building from the ground up. Nearly 70% of respondents in a November 2011 poll by government broadcaster NHK said they wanted nuclear power reduced or phased out. Many people are joining demonstrations for the first time in their lives. Last September, some 60,000 marched in Tokyo against nuclear power in one of the largest protests the country has seen in decades. A flurry of lawsuits has been filed by people fed up with living next door to nuclear plants in an archipelago where the next big earthquake seems never far off. "This is the beginning of a new change in Japan," author and Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe said recently. "We need to decide as a people what we need to do ... We cannot wait."
The Japanese, as the world's only victims of nuclear war, would have seemed the least likely people to adopt nuclear technology. But Japan has few fuel deposits, and to help power the postwar boom, governments poured money into atomic-energy research. After the oil crisis of the 1970s, generating nuclear power to reduce dependence on foreign oil became a priority. "Everybody was so hopeful about this new energy," says Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor and nuclear-safety expert at Kyoto University. As a critical voice within the industry itself, he adds, "I was pretty much alone." Today, though, the former fringe campaigner has become one of Japan's most in-demand speakers. He is convinced that radiation levels outside the government's mandatory evacuation zone pose long-term health risks to children, as they do today in Chernobyl, 25 years after that accident. "Without a doubt, there will be bad effects," Koide says.
(MORE: The Year of the Meltdown)
Fukushima prefecture is the area most affected by 3/11, but not everyone there agrees with Koide. The question of whether it's safe to stay has become a deeply divisive issue. Some residents feel that campaigners like Koide and the scores of families who have packed up and left are wrong about the danger and are causing harm to community morale and local economies. "The health risks have been badly exaggerated," says Yoko Ichikawa, a Fukushima City pediatrician. She thinks the risk of childhood cancer from exposure at current radiation levels is low comparable to the chance of being in a plane crash. Telling parents otherwise, she says, "is evil."
On the other hand, several mayors in the prefecture have become opponents of nuclear power, and residents are joining action groups regardless of what skeptical neighbors think. "Some people ask me, Why are you so worried?" says 44-year-old Naomi Nagasawa, a car-park manager who co-organized one of Koide's recent lectures. "But my question for them is, Why are you not worried?"
In fact, plenty are, all over Japan. In a crowded room in the city of Sapporo, on northern Hokkaido island, Kaori Izumi kicks off the inaugural meeting of Stop! Nuclear Power Hokkaido, a group campaigning to close Tomari, the island's only nuclear plant. Izumi, 55, says that after Fukushima she waited "for somebody to go out into the street and start shouting." When nobody did, she started a lone protest. That action eventually grew into Stop!, which is now part of a coalition of groups calling for a nuclear-free Japan by summer. The goal sounds far-fetched, but only two of Japan's 54 reactors are currently generating (the rest are shut for maintenance or safety checks). By the end of April, those two will also go off-line. The very last will be Tomari.