Synthesis/Regeneration 11   (Fall 1996)

A View From Hiroshima: Japan is Chernobyl

Anna Gyorgy interviews Satomi Oba

Satomi Oba and I met at the conference center in Hiroshima's Peace Park on Easter Sunday. The beautiful open memorial was full of visitors: those honoring the victims of the first use of the atomic bomb, others picnicking under blossoming cherry trees that line the edge of the park. Satomi is a resident of this city, an activist, teacher, and mother of four children. She has long been concerned about her country's reliance on nuclear energy, and its stockpiles of the dangerous bomb-material-plutonium. —Anna Gyorgy, Green Korea

Satomi: I came to Hiroshima when I was a university student in 1969, and here I first learned about the hazards of atomic bombs. I saw lots of photos and heard a lot of stories from survivors. I felt it was very terrible and that we had to stop nuclear weapons. But I also began to question the fact that the people of Hiroshima are active against nuclear weapons but not so active against nuclear power plants.

I started Plutonium Action Hiroshima in 1991 when the shipment of plutonium (from French reprocessing facilities back to Japan) was just starting. So I have been working on the plutonium issue for about 5 years. But before this we had held some actions against nuclear power plants, after the Chernobyl accident in 1986. That accident was very shocking to all of us in Japan, like other parts of the world. But I was aware of the dangers of nuclear power in civilian and military use before the Chernobyl accident. I started my small activity in 1983-84.

I saw that nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are the same thing originally.

I saw that nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons are the same thing originally. They are the same. The danger from the radioactivity comes very slowly and it's more hazardous to the younger generation. So Hiroshima should protest against nuclear weapons and also against the civilian use of the atom. I was thinking that for a long time. Then after the Chernobyl accident from very far away the cloud of radioactivity came to Japan, and many women here began to get active against nuclear power plants.

Anna: As you mention the impact of Chernobyl, can you tell us what will happen here on the 10th anniversary of the accident?

Satomi: Some of my friends are organizing a fund-raising concert by a Chernobyl children's chorus. As for myself, I'm not sure what action we should take. The reason why I am not preparing any action is because I have always been active against Monju, the fast breeder reactor, and against the nuclear fuel cycle facilities in Rokkasho, and I know that Japan is Chernobyl. In Japan there are a lot of workers who have been exposed to radiation and are suffering. So we should fight the nuclear issue inside Japan first.

Anna: Did the recent accident (December 1995) at the plutonium-fueled Monju fast-breeder reactor make people here more aware of its dangers?

Satomi: Yes, the Monju accident is a very epoch-making one. Before, people may have known the name "Monju" and that it was a fast-breeder reactor. But the accident in December showed most people in Japan what a fast-breeder reactor really is, and what sodium is, and that nuclear power is very dangerous. In February the Asahi newspaper, one of the most highly regarded papers, did a public survey showing that about 73% of the Japanese people thought there would be a major accident in a Japanese nuclear plant. The survey also showed that about 60% of the people thought that the fast breeder project should be reconsidered and changed.

Anna: In Korea there was a lot of publicity about the accident, when tons of liquid sodium leaked from the reactor's cooling system. But public concern did not really carry over to the Korean nuclear program, because it was emphasized that this was a different kind of reactor, which does not yet exist in Korea. What about in Japan?

Satomi: For most average people, the fast-breeder project is hard to understand, with many technical terms. But we have to recognize that the final purpose of nuclear development is to build fast-breeder reactors. The light-water reactor is only a stage towards the use of plutonium. So in South Korea I think some of the leaders are indeed thinking about a fast-breeder reactor. That is the main purpose of nuclear development in many countries.

The light-water reactor uses uranium as fuel, but supplies will be consumed earlier than coal and petroleum. Plutonium from dismantled bombs or reprocessed from light-water reactor wastes ("spent fuel") would then be used to fuel this "new generation" of reactor. But because the fast-breeder reactor can produce weapons-grade plutonium in the so-called "blanket" of uranium that surrounds the reactor core, this reactor is a step towards more nuclear weapons. So far plutonium has only been used by the military (in nuclear weapons). Only. No country has succeeded to use it for civilian use. If Japan is allowed to develop the fast-breeder reactor, how can you forbid other countries to do it?

Anna: So what do you think the future of the Monju reactor will be? It cost $6 billion to build and now it is an unusable mess.

Satomi: At the least, there will be a halt for perhaps three years. But there are too many problems with Monju, and they have to do a lot of research, and if they repair the plant it will be very expensive. And the governor of the Fukui Prefecture is very strong against the project-just like the Okinawa governor-and the residents and local governments around Monju have changed dramatically.

In former times they promoted the nuclear power plants. In Fukui Prefecture there are 15 nuclear power plants, including Monju. But after the accident most of the local municipalities made statements to the government against the project. It's unbelievable! They are resisting efforts to restart Monju. Some local councilors insist it will be scrapped.

The three governors of Fukui, Fukushima and Nigata Prefectures made strong statements to the government to reconsider nuclear power plant projects as a whole. In total, Japan has 50 nuclear power plants. Four or five more are planned for the whole country. Feelings are rapidly changing in Fukui Prefecture, so I hope that local opinion will stop the fast breeder reactor project.

The Hiroshima survivors, second generation residents and students felt very anxious and angry about the nuclear testing and thought a lot about what would be effective to stop the atomic tests.

Anna: You have been to France to learn more about that country's nuclear development and failures first hand. That is interesting, because Japan and France are always held up as the examples of countries that have been very "successful" with nuclear power.

Satomi: But it is not success, but failure in nuclear development, that you will see in France and in Japan. In January we went to France to hold an exhibition about the Hiroshima atomic bombing, to oppose French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. We were a group of 10 people, including Hiroshima survivors-one was a Korean survivor. The Hiroshima survivors, second generation residents and students felt very anxious and angry about the nuclear testing and thought a lot about what would be effective to stop the atomic tests. So Japanese grassroots people made a plan to go to France, and asked me to go with them because I knew the plutonium connection between France and Japan.

Anna: And were you able to learn more about the connection there?

Satomi: Yes, while other members were staying in Paris and showing the photos and telling their stories, I went to the massive reprocessing center at La Hague, the nearby port of Cherbourg (where radioactive wastes are shipped by sea), and to the French fast-breeder, the Super-Phoenix.

Anna: Is there going to be another shipment of plutonium back from La Hague to Japan, like the very controversial one that went on between November 1992 and early January 1993?

Satomi: The second plutonium shipment is not certain. It may be very difficult for them to provide the security. Plutonium shipment is very difficult for the French and the Japanese, because the vehicle protection is very expensive. Another reason is that Monju has failed, so we do not need more plutonium to fuel it. And the international treaty forbids a surplus supply of plutonium. The plutonium brought by ship last year is still in Tokai-Mura village because it is waiting to be the next fuel for Monju. But Monju will never work.

However a second shipment of high-level waste is planned for early next year. In France I met Mr. Didier Anger, a Green Party activist who has long been protesting against COGEMA, the company running the two reprocessing plants in La Hague. He said that citizen groups would protest against any plutonium shipments from France because no one should possess plutonium as it can be diverted into nuclear weapons. They feel that the plutonium is safer there, rather than being shipped around the world.

But the high-level wastes (left after reprocessing) are different, he said. They came from Japanese nuclear power stations, and he feels that the Japanese people should take responsibility for them. Of course these wastes are also very dangerous, because they are extremely radioactive. In Cherbourg they do not want the wastes. COGEMA is willing to store them because they can make money charging countries storage fees. But French activists want the waste returned to Japan. I think many countries along the shipping route will protest the shipment, because it is also very radioactive. But the residents of Cherbourg and the residents of La Hague will demand that it go back to Japan as soon as possible. To leave it in Cherbourg will make COGEMA stronger. And if La Hague is the final dump site, Japanese power stations will just continue to produce more and more radioactive waste.

Anna: So what do you think about this?

Satomi: It's very difficult. At this point I think the Japanese government should accept the high-level waste. But really, radioactive waste has no solution. No solution in the world. We have to stop producing radioactive waste. And we have to leave it in the place where it is created, and not move it. The problem is that nuclear hazards accumulate and are dangerous to indigenous people and discriminated people on the site. We had to think about this 30 years ago. It is too late now. We have too much radioactive waste, and no one will welcome it in their village, in their area. But we have to keep and watch it safely. However first we should recognize that there is no solution.

In La Hague the waste storage has caused very serious contamination. There is no government research and no documentation of the contamination there. But citizen groups are watching and making documentation and they have revealed the contamination in La Hague.

Before this trip there was little exchange between French and Japanese groups. In January I went to France for the first time, and in February other anti-nuclear activists went to France. Two days ago we had a small meeting with activists from the village where the high-level waste is stored. An activist there, Kay Shimada, a photographer, has been active for a long time against a nuclear facility being built at Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture, which is now under construction and is the biggest in the world. The facilities there include uranium enrichment, a reprocessing plant, low-level waste storage and high-level waste temporary storage. And last April, on the Chernobyl anniversary day, the first high-level waste was transported to Rokkasho village.

Finding alternative energy is not the solution. We have to reduce the consumption of energy.

Kay Shimada wanted to stop the second shipment of radioactive wastes from France, and is organizing a mission from Japan to France this summer. To prepare for this she went there in February. She also met with Didier Anger and activists there, and was shocked to see the extent of contamination at La Hague. So for the first time she also thought that Japan must accept the high-level waste back from France. That it is not fair to leave it in La Hague. Now she is making a campaign trip around Japan to report about Rokkasho and La Hague.

Anna: I wanted to ask you about the role of women in your movement.

Satomi: Women are more powerful than men in Japan—like in the rest of the world!! (laughs) For example, the idea to go to France to make an exhibition came from women. And last year I went to Panama to stop the nuclear high-level waste shipment, and the four members were all women. There are many, many grassroots movements in Japan, but in the anti-nuclear movement I see a lot of women who are leading them. Not following, but leading them. That is quite wonderful, I think.

My organization is called Plutonium Action Hiroshima, and about 150 members support it financially. Most of the members who are active are women. Recently the new ideas are mostly from women.

Anna: I would like to hear what you think about the importance of international and regional cooperation in Asia, because this is the last place on earth where the nuclear industry sees future growth.

Satomi: Yes. I am very afraid that Asia will be the big market for the nuclear industry. But if the Asian people look at Japan, France, the United States, Russia, they will see examples of failure of nuclear development. In France they have failed. Take the Super-Phoenix (a problem-plagued plutonium-fueled fast-breeder reactor, like Monju). No one in the industry or the government believes in the civilian use for energy of the fast-breeder reactor. The French activists told me that if I looked into the nuclear fuel cycle in France, I would know the future for Japan. The same thing will be true for Asian people and for Japan.

Anna: Are there people working on developing alternative energy sources in Japan?

Satomi: I know some groups who are developing alternatives like biomass and solar. But we also have to have a philosophy of how to live, and about energy use. Finding alternative energy is not the solution. We have to reduce the consumption of energy. Like the United States and Europe, we consume too much energy. And that adds to global warming and climate change.

I think it is very good that Japanese young people are beginning to think about reducing consumption of resources, and protecting the environment. There are a lot of environmental groups here.

The only problem I have is that in Japan environmental groups sometimes want to exclude the nuclear issue. They are thinking of forest protection, etc. But I think that the nuclear issue is one of the central issues of pollution and environmental contamination.

Anna: And why do you think they want to keep it separate?

Satomi: That is the strategy of the government. After Chernobyl so many people, mostly women, started to be active against nuclear power plants, so the industry and government thought and thought, and started another campaign to protect the environment, saying that nuclear plants produce no carbon dioxide—it's "clean energy" they say. And the government and electric power companies made up beautiful pamphlets that are propaganda for "environmental protection." They give money to environmental groups, but they never give money to groups like ours that are fighting against the nuclear industries.

Synthesis/Regeneration home page  | Synthesis/Regeneration 11 Contents