On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by a massive earthquake -- measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale -- and a tsunami with waves up to 65 feet high, leading to a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. As a result, Japan's 54 nuclear power plants were taken offline for safety checks. The last one was powered down on May 5, 2012.
But in May, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in the face of overwhelming public opposition, decided to restart Japan's nuclear power plants. Now, a growing movement is protesting the decision.
Weekly demonstrations, with turnout initially numbering in the hundreds, have been taking place on Friday evenings in front of the Prime Minister's office. People show up after work and school. And their numbers have been swelling, reaching into the thousands in recent weeks.
Japan is the third-largest consumer of nuclear energy, after the U.S. and France, and is followed by Russia and Germany. Japan is also the world's third largest economy. Nuclear power plants generate about 30 percent of Japan's energy needs. During the shutdown of its nuclear power plants, utility companies have turned to coal, oil and gas to supply electricity to industries and households.
Additionally, Japan, already the world's biggest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) bought record amounts of LNG last year to replace the nuclear energy.
Last July, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan called for a nuclear phase-out and proposed drawing a new energy strategy that reduces Japan's reliance on nuclear generated electricity. He proposed scrapping plans for 34 new nuclear power plants and questioned whether private companies should run nuclear power plants. Kan also said that Japan should work to increase renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and recently told the AP that the Fukushima disaster has "turned him into a believer of renewable energy."
Kan was succeeded by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on Sept. 2, 2011. In his first speech, delivered that day, Prime Minister Noda -- the fiscally conservative former Minister of Finance -- announced that Japan will continue to phase out nuclear power plants, building neither new plants nor extending the licenses of existing plants.
But he also announced that existing nuclear power plants would be restarted after safety checks.
On May 30, 2012, the Union of Kansai Governments, an organization consisting of representatives from local authorities in the region including Fukui, gave its approval for a restart of the two reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant. The district is on the western coast of Honshu, Japan's main island.
More importantly, the reactors are in Japan's "nuclear alley," which includes 13 of the country's 54 reactors, and supplies the nearby industrial city of Osaka with power.
Nonetheless, most of the local governments are not in favor or a restart. Only two of 11 municipal governments within an 18-miles radius of the plants support a restart, according to a recent survey by Kyodo.
In response to the May 30 decision, up to 1,000 anti-nuclear protestors gathered outside the Prime Minister's office on Friday, June 1, beating drums and chanting against the restart as part of the growing weekly Friday demonstrations. But on June 16, Prime Minister Noda gave final approval to the plans to restart the two reactors at Oi. Although the restart does not need local approval, he sought to rally it in order to secure consensus.
Yet the public remains staunchly opposed to nuclear energy in Japan. Since March, weekly demonstrations have taken place on Fridays at 6pm in front of the Prime Minister's office.
According to Aileen Mioko Smith of Green Action, a Japan-based organization working to end nuclear power, "the demonstrations started out with 500, then several thousand and have now even reached 150,000. Each week, they have grown."
The first reactor at the Oi nuclear power plant was restarted on July 9. Thousands of people across Japan marched against the country's nuclear restart.
The second reactor was restarted July 18, and came two days after one of the largest protests against nuclear power in Japan since the Fukushima disaster, as tens of thousands protested in Tokyo.
And on July 20, the weekly demonstration expanded with an additional protest taking place in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The dissent on the issue of nuclear energy is bringing to the fore tensions between the political establishment and public will. Ex-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who preceded Kan, joined the July 20 rally, saying, "I regret that politics has strayed so far from the people's wishes." Kan resigned last August and was succeeded by Prime Minister Noda.
The turnover also speaks to a crisis in the government, which has seen six ministers in five years and has largely lost the voters' confidence.
On the upside, Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yukio Edano approved the introduction of feed-in-tariffs on June 18, 2012. This system has proven very beneficial in Germany, employing a percentage of energy use fees to subsidize renewable energy.
Japan hopes to ramp up its renewable energy to the point where it constitutes 25 percent to 35 percent of its energy source by 2030. Kazue Suzuki from Greenpeace says, "Japan could easily end its reliance on the nuclear energy. From May 5 to July 5, Japan was nuclear free. No single power plant operated and there were no black outs... Japan is the most ideal country for renewable energy. We have sun. We have wind everywhere. What is missing is the political will."
Last September, together with the European Renewable Energy Council, Greenpeace published the second edition of its report, "The Advanced Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable Energy Outlook for Japan." The document outlines three possible scenarios for Japan's energy future: 1) business as usual; 2) a nuclear phase-out and switch to renewables; and 3) a rapid switch from nuclear reactors, keeping them closed, and a transition to renewables.
"If Japan takes the third outlined pathway, it could generate up to 43 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020," said Greenpeace International's Jan Beránek, who was involved with authoring the report.
Having weathered the worst of its summer heat and humidity with the majority of its nuclear power plants shut down bodes well for Japan's ability to phase out nuclear energy and shift to renewables. But it remains to be seen what the Japanese government will ultimately decide.
The government continues to be under scrutiny and pressure as a result of its handling of the Fukushima disaster and nuclear energy policy. On July 22, reports revealed an investigation into allegations that employees subcontracted by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were pressured to under-report the level of radiation they detected at the Fukushima Daichii plant. And on July 23, Reuters reported that despite safety tests, Japan's nuclear power plants might not be prepared for another complex catastrophe.
But with the government increasingly in crisis and at odds with the public and with demonstrations rising, it looks like it will have to be the people's voice that forces a shift away from nuclear power.
Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic who covers international climate negotiations, domestic energy policy and related direct actions. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Nation, The Progressive and the Washington Monthly.