| TOKYO, March 8
TOKYO, March 8 The crowds of anti-nuclear
protesters have dwindled since Japan's "Summer of Discontent"
last year, and a new government is keen to revive the country's
atomic energy industry, but Morishi Izumita says he is not about
to throw in the towel.
"We can't give up. I'm here every week," said 64-year-old
Izumita, one of hundreds gathered outside the prime minister's
office one Friday nearly two years after a huge earthquake and
tsunami triggered the world's worst nuclear disaster since
Chernobyl in 1986 at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.
"We need to be out here protesting. Not giving up is the
important thing," he added, as other activists banged on drums
and chanted "Stop nuclear power, protect our children".
As Japan approaches the second anniversary of the Fukushima
disaster on March 11, its anti-nuclear movement appears to be
struggling and disgraced pro-nuclear forces are rallying.
Although a recent survey showed some 70 percent of Japanese
want to phase out nuclear power eventually, an equal number back
their new, pro-nuclear prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who wants to
restart off-line reactors if they meet new safety standards as
he pushes policies aimed at reviving a long-stagnant economy.
The anti-nuclear movement will have a chance to show its
strength this weekend as Japan commemorates the disaster. The
Metropolitan Coalition Against Nukes, which organized many of
last year's mass protests, has called for a mass rally to
protest outside parliament on Sunday, the eve of the
The March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami killed nearly 19,000
people and smashed Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima
plant, triggering meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing some
160,000 people to flee their homes, many never to return.
The disaster also destroyed a carefully cultivated myth that
nuclear power was cheap and safe - and mobilised Japan's often
apathetic voters in huge anti-nuclear demonstrations during a
2012 summer of discontent.
Half a year later, the pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party
(LDP) swept back to power - not because voters had changed their
minds about energy policy, but because neither the then-ruling
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) nor smaller opposition parties
provided a credible standard-bearer for anti-nuclear sentiment.
Now, the issue seems to have been swept aside amid hopes
Abe can revive the economy and restore dented national pride.
"Two years have passed, the economic situation is getting
better ... and it may be true people are forgetting about energy
issues," said Hiroshi Takahashi at the Fujitsu Research
Institute, a member of the panel that drafted the DPJ
government's plan to exit atomic energy by the 2030s.
NUCLEAR CORRIDORS OF POWER
Takahashi, along with most other experts who questioned
whether Japan should stick with atomic energy, has been bumped
from the panel as Abe's government begins its policy rethink.
Abe's government plans to review from scratch his DPJ
predecessor's plan to exit nuclear power while boosting
renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power, and
wants to restart off-line reactors that are certified safe under
standards now being drafted by a new Nuclear Regulatory Agency.
"The 'nuclear village' is back in the driver's seat," said
Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple
University's Japan campus. The term 'nuclear village' refers to
the powerful nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and utilities
that for decades promoted atomic power in Japan.
"All the noises from the government are in favour of
restarts ... They own the corridors of power."
All but two of Japan's 50 reactors remain switched off after
the disaster and no more are expected to be restarted until
after July, when the new regulator is due to finalise tougher
safety requirements more in line with international norms.
That would also be after an upper house election that Abe's
ruling bloc needs to win to cement its grip on power.
The 58-year-old Abe, who has focused on reviving the
stagnant economy since taking office in December, is enjoying
sky-high popularity ratings of around 70 percent.
Surveys suggest, though, that anti-nuclear sentiment may be
simmering beneath the surface. Fifty-nine percent in an Asahi
newspaper poll last month wanted Japan to abandon atomic energy
by the 2030s and another 12 percent by a later date.
Only 18 percent said Japan should stick with nuclear energy
Nuclear energy supplied nearly 30 percent of Japan's
electricity needs before Fukushima and proponents argue it is
vital to provide a stable electricity supply, keep down utility
rates and prevent Japanese manufacturers from fleeing overseas
in ever greater numbers, taking jobs with them.
"You'd think that people would have acquiesced to the
so-called facts, but that doesn't appear to be the case," said
Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo who
writes about energy policy. "People are not going out into the
streets but there is a lot of outrage. It's like a dry forest
waiting for a spark and restarts will be the real test."
(Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Mark