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Beyond Japan in the Post-Fukushima World Order: Japan’s Gamble on the Asian Nuclear Renaissance

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Civil society groups in Japan and India have reacted swiftly to the collective nuclear hubris of their leaders.

Maia Sikina



This December 11-13, India’s Prime Minister Modi is set to host Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss boosting exchanges in civilian nuclear and conventional military technology between the two nations. On the negotiating table are loans for a high-speed railway, sales of Japan-manufactured amphibious aircraft, and crucially, a nuclear supply deal that would extend the life of Japan’s ailing nuclear industry. Nearly five years on from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, the world’s most devastating civilian nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the crippled reactors continue to gush radioactive water and elude decontamination efforts. Opponents argue that it is immoral for the Japanese government to peddle nuclear futures in Asia and beyond without first resolving its domestic crisis in Fukushima and critically, improving safety standards in its reactor designs. Hiroshima and Nagasaki mayors together with local Hibakusha (atomic-bombing survivors) have lambasted the nuclear supply deal,arguing that such a Faustian bargain would simply pave the way for the hollowing out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, since India has repeatedly refused to sign the NPT and conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1974 and 1998. creates the dilemma of developing a nuclear weapons program in part to resolve the issue of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Yet India’s civilian nuclear ambitions have been heavily criticized both by the urban-centered progressive left, and in the aftermath of Fukushima, rural agricultural and fishing communities who face displacement to make way for the new nuclear parks.


Their nuclear fears stem from visits to the now vacant hamlets around Fukushima NPP, such as Futaba, Okuma, and Namie, villages that have been emptied out and shuttered. Some 118,000 residents continuing to grapple with the impossibility of reclaiming their furusato(homelands) and remain evacuated from home communities. Inside Fukushima prefecture, the total number of nuclear “disaster-related deaths,” indicating those whose deaths were driven by psychological and physiological stress, as well as medical conditions aggravated by the disaster,has now surpassed those directly inundated by the tsunami itself. The whereabouts of melted fuel from reactors 1, 2, and 3 is unknown. The melted fuel may be undergoing recurrent criticality; as recently as December 2014,unexplained spikesin radioactive iodine-131 and tellurium-132 were detected in neighboring Gunma prefecture. Meanwhile, vouching that Japan’s nuclear crisis was fully “under control” and that water-born radioactive substances were “blocked within 0.3 sq km of the plant’s harbor,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hoodwinked the International Olympic Committee into awarding Tokyo the bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Many, including Fukushima evacuees, now urge that Japan bow an “honorable retreat”and pass the Olympic baton to a more suitable host. With some 48% majority public opposition to domestic nuclear power and civil disobedience to block domestic restarts,[1] the future for Japan’s domestic nuclear industry is bleak at best.

Nuclear Exports and Global Anti-Nuclear Solidarity

Enter the proposed India-Japan Nuclear Agreement. Despite and perhaps directly resulting from the unending crisis in Fukushima, Japan is now aggressively pursuing nuclear supply agreements with emergent nuclear nations across Asia and the Middle East. With the meltdowns at Fukushima NPP, Japan’s civilian nuclear technology ceased to power one-third of its domestic energy needs or provide revenue for a significant portion of its corporate nuclear sector, and instead, assumed global dimensions. In literal terms, the hydrogen explosions triggered by the Fukushima reactor disaster released a radioactive plumeinto the atmosphere stretching across Fukushima to the northwest and then dissipating into the Pacific ocean. The radioactive isotopes were ferried unrestrained by ocean currents and wind patterns into broader global flows. Figuratively speaking, global ambitions pinned to visions of nuclear as a carbon-neutral alternative to the polluting fossil fuel industry gave way to nuclear technology being scrapped from a majority of industrialized nations’ energy profiles, and birthed new commitments to proven renewable energy alternatives.


More palpable than the plume itself was the anxiety that the disaster unleashed in rural communities slated for massive nuclear expansions. Communities like Ratnagiri, Idinthakarai, Kovvada, and Mithivirdi. Thousands of miles removed from Fukushima,villagers in Tamil Nadu in southeastern India watched the hydrogen explosions at Fukushima’s reactors on televisions distributed to foster acceptance of the town’s newest neighbor, Koodankulam NPP, then under construction. Koodankulam was the first new nuclear plant to be constructed after the Fukushima crisis. Further west in Maharashtra, home of the proposed Jaitapur NPP, schoolchildren watched the Fukushima reactor buildings explode on social media and television. When the state government introduced new textbooks celebrating nuclear energy as a “clean and green technology,” thousands of local elementary schoolchildren boycotted school, forcing the state to withdraw the new textbook. On March 14, the Indian government’s efforts to allay public fears by reporting that Japan’s nuclear crisis was "purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency" offered little reassurance.

Civil society groups in Japan and India have reacted swiftly to the collective nuclear hubris of their leaders and have orchestrated a range of transnational campaigns to draw attention to the far-reaching and detrimental implications of the nuclear deal. From Mumbai to Chennai to New Delhi, and in rural areas where Japan’s nuclear equipment would be located in Jaitapur, Mithivirdi, and Kovvada, between December 10-13, thousands plan to hold mass demonstrations to in opposition to the nuclear technology pact. Jaitapur residents who face displacement from the villages where the French company Areva is constructing a massive nuclear power park, have joined forces with farmers and fisherfolk who face loss of livelihood and plan a “jail bharo” (voluntary arrest) of some three thousand for December 12. Partner organizations in Tokyo, Osaka, London, New York, and beyond, also plan solidarity protests.

The World Nuclear Victims Forum, convened in Hiroshima in late November 2015, condemned Japan’s proposed nuclear exports to India and further expansion of the civilian nuclear industry, noting, “We are gravely concerned that the export of nuclear power plants is extremely likely to result in severe human rights abuses and environmental damage.” In the forum’s final document, the draft charter of World Nuclear Victims’ Rights, representatives demanded that nuclear manufacturers, operators, and states that export nuclear technology must be held liable for damages, together with shareholders and creditors. Alongside the climate justice movement, the global anti-nuclear movement is emerging as a formidable global force and has deeply criticized arguments that nuclear offers a suitable alternative for fossil fuels, as in response to the global nuclear industry’s lobbying at the Paris COP21accords. This global anti-nuclear constituency received a major boost from the tragedy of Fukushima, which helped to shrink the ideological gulf between the disarmament camp and the civil anti-nuclear camps, revolutionizing movement agendas to focus on the eradication of all nuclear fissile materials and technologies. Indeed, civil society groups argue that the logic of distinguishing civilian and military nuclear applications as separate technological processes and thus distinct science and technology policy agendas is mere fallacy. They are, in the language of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, merely “two sides of the same coin.” Mastery of nuclear fission for ostensibly peaceful purposes has enhanced the capability of some twenty nations toward nuclear weapons manufacture, and thus civilian nuclear technology poses an inherent dilemma, as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recognizes.

Likewise, in India, the Fukushima catastrophe became a political flashpoint for some 150,000 project affected persons in rural communities and Indigenous adivasiwho face the immediate threat of displacement and loss of livelihood from proposed nuclear power stations. One of the most troubling aspects of civil anti-nuclear mobilization in India is the criminalization of dissent.
Inside Asia’s largest democracy, democratic process has been largely mortgaged in exchange for a myopic embrace of nuclear modernity as “carbon-neutral” means of realizing energy equality. Activists decry these justifications and point out that gross inefficiency in India’s energy distribution system and with the focus on nuclear-generated electricity being delivered to urban energy grids, more NPPs will not substantially advance energy parity. Anti-nuclear activists are branded as “anti-nationals” and placed on classified government documents as persona non grata. In Koodankulam, some of the most dramatic scenes of vast citizen uprising against the unwanted neighbor of the Russian nuclear plant have been met with brutal police repression. In each of the three projects designated for imported Japanese nuclear technology – Jaitapur (Maharashttra), Kovvada (Andhra Pradesh), and Mithi Virdi (Gujarat) – local communities have engaged in non-violent Gandhi-style gatherings, protests and satyagraha-inspired peaceful marches. In each case, police have exercised impunity in arresting and detaining thousands, sometimes for months at a time, charging many with sedition against the state, and in extreme cases, acts of police brutality have led to protester deaths.

Hitching Nuclear Energy Futures to Nuclear Diplomacy

The United States concluded its nuclear deal with India in 2008 and under intense pressure from the US, Prime Minister Naoto Kan finally elected to seek nuclear cooperation with India in 2010. Despite a temporary hiatus after the Fukushima disaster, from late 2013 Tokyo repositioned the nuclear industry as the pivot of the nation’s export market and bundled nuclear technology contracts into foreign aid packages to ensure a market for Japan’s nuclear technology. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe second administration, Japan has taken a particularly aggressive posture in pushing nuclear exports. France signed its civilian nuclear deal with India in early 2015, and alongside the US, both nations depend on Japan’s cooperation to meet their reactor export obligations to India under the agreements. That is, three of the four most advanced French and US reactor designs depend on specialized components, namely the reactor pressure vessel, that are only manufactured in Japan.Without Japan’s signature, these earlier projects and the international agreements obligating them remain stymied. After two years of painstaking negotiations,Japan’s Foreign Ministry has announced they intend to set ink to the bilateral agreement during PM Abe’s official visit this December 11-13.

India has ambitious nuclear goals: Prime Minister Singh in 2010 raised nuclear targets to increase India’s capacity more than seven fold to 35,000 MWe by 2022, and to 60,000 MWe by 2032. By 2020, India plans to construct an additional 18 nuclear reactors, roughly equivalent to 9 trillion yen ($86.1 billion)in revenue.Since his election in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has heightened the focus on jump starting India’s nuclear sector as a central rail in the nation’s energy infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Japan has faced a seemingly interminable economic stagnation since the early 1990s, and the catastrophe of 3.11 further exacerbated these economic woes. Hitching nuclear technology contracts to foreign aid agreements now appears to be a key strategy employed by the nuclear village (genshiryoku mura, or the nuclear power industry)to prolong its corporate viability and fuel the nuclear renaissance in the developing world, in particular in Asia. In early 2015, the Japanese government revised its Master Plan for Development Assistance, tethering foreign aid explicitly to Japanese corporate profits, removing the stipulation that aid be request-based, and critically, adding weapons exports and national security loans to its aid categories. Along these lines and much to the annoyance of China, Japan and India recently engaged in joint naval exercises together with US forces in the Bay of Begal and further, Japan seeks a market for its newly resumed arms exports in the Indian military as well.Official Development Assistance (ODA) citizen watchdog groups raised alarms that the new policy will empower companies to tailor development packages toward maximizing corporate profits, and to subsidize foreign military weapons purchases, in the absence of a transparent, democratic review process by either nation’s citizenry. Meanwhile, nuclear energy economists argue that export markets are essential to ensure technological innovation and stay ahead of China’s anticipated advances in export capacity.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, Japan has clinched bilateral nuclear agreements with Vietnam, Turkey, Jordan, and the UAE, but the agreement with India, if signed, would radically transform the political landscape of such commercial nuclear supply agreements. The proposed nuclear pact has devastating implications for the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime and for escalating militarization in South Asia and beyond. Under the current proposal, the Japanese government has agreed to provide nuclear technology exclusively for civilian energy-production. Yet, in a June 2015 report, it was revealed that Tokyo had consented to provisioning Delhi with spent nuclear fuel which can be reprocessed and easily diverted toward weapons-producing purposes. South Asia analysts argue that the Indian government’s primary motivation is neither development nor bringing energy equality to the 412 million Indian citizens who lack access to electricity. Instead, observers suggest that India’s primary objective is to enhance its military stature in the region by consolidating domestic uranium sources and technology exclusively for nuclear weapons manufacture. Further, troubling questions remain about whether the deal might catalyze a nuclear arms race in South Asia, further inflaming India-Pakistan relations. The agreement is also pivotal for ensuring that earlier bilateral agreements between India and the US (2008), and India and France (2015), which hinge on specialized Japanese nuclear components essential to several planned nuclear power stations across the country, are brought to fruition.

A Threat to Japan’s Moral Order?

Japan is the only nation on earth to have experienced the unfathomable chaos and hell fire on earth of wartime-era atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then in Fukushima, a level 7 civilian reactor accident, precipitating 170,000-200,000mandatory evacuations and thousands more voluntary evacuations. During the last seventy years, with its wartime role as aggressor in the Asia-Pacific region dissolved under the Occupation-authored postwar Japanese Constitution, Japan has anchored its national identity in nuclear disarmament and eradication of nuclear weapons from existing arsenals.If approved, the deal with India would render this position morally and practically bankrupt. Japan would no doubt lose its political legitimacy as an advocate of pacifism, staunch supporter of nuclear weapons abolition, and ultimately,compromise its competitive global edge as a leader in civilian nuclear technology. Indeed, in an urgent appeal issued to the Abe administration, the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki wrote, “As a Non-Nuclear Weapons State(NNWS) our nation’s position is to urge the rapid and unconditional ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by all Non-Party states. Yet, should we pursue negotiations on this bilateral agreement, we would ourselves occasion the hollowing out of the NPT regime.”

The Indian nuclear deal thus poses an existential dilemma and threatens to undermine each of its previous bilateral agreements. Japan’s gesture toward nuclear partnership with India also reflects a strategic calculation to counterbalance China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific, a strategic position similarly driving the US to conclude its 2008 nuclear deal with India. Yet analysts argue this assumes India will align itself with Western geopolitical currents, and fails to appreciate India’s historically measured approach to Beijing.

Immediately after the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s fledgling anti-nuclear lobby enjoyed a groundswell of citizen support, with the largest citizen actions and protests since the movement to overturn the US-Japan Security Treaty in the late 1950s. At present, anti-nuclear campaigns focus on the vexing problem of nuclear restarts, the lack of adequate evacuation plans in nuclear reactor host communities slated for restarts, and a too cozy relationship between the “nuclear village” and the government, which they charge has diluted Japan’s nuclear regulatory agencies. Anti-nuclear organizations and ODA watchdogs have raised concerns about Japan’s nuclear diplomacy, meaning its new brand of foreign policy and development aid centered on bilateral agreements to subsidize exports of nuclear technology. Chief among these are nuclear energy and environmental policy think tanks such as Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center, ODA citizen watchdog organizations, global environmental organizations such as Friends of the Earth-Japan, and transnational grassroots coalitions such as No Nukes Asia Forum. Since 2013, these civil society groups have coordinated international campaigns to oppose nuclear exports through petition drives and by sponsoring Indian grassroots activists’ and intellectuals’ speaking tours around Japan to raise awareness of the global impacts of Japan’s ambitious new brand of nuclear diplomacy.

Through harnessing social media networks and choreographing media blitzes in India, Japan, and beyond, these transnational citizen groups have sought to develop shared scripts, to influence policy outcomes, and to tailor strategies to match the cocktail of domestic sentiments and foreign policy objectives within both India and Japan, respectively. Yet unlike earlier nuclear export campaigns, heightened concerns about a rapid diversion from peaceful to military applications of nuclear fission in the India-Japan nuclear deal have raised the stakes significantly. From November 23-26, Indian representatives Mr. Kumar Sundaram of the Coalition for Disarmament and Peace, and Dr. Vaishali Patil, Convenor of the Forum against Disastrous Projects in Konkan, visited Japan and addressed members of Parliament, lobbied the Foreign Ministry, delivered international appeals to Cabinet offices, and met with citizen groups across Japan. After returning to India, they have sought to bolster these transnational partnerships through online petitions, social media campaigns, and through choreographing a collective strategy to pressure the Japanese and Indian governments to abandon the bilateral deal and pursue alternative forms of energy and citizen-to-citizen transnational partnerships.

Japan’s Development Aid, A Barometer of its International Stature
Over the past five decades, Japan’s ODA has been the state's key mechanism to contribute to the world population's well being, cultivate allies, broker international respect and build alliances. Japan was the largest single aid donor in the world between 1991 and the early 2000s, and in 2012 it ranked 5th among international donors (Leheny and Warren 2009). The ODA is thus of utmost concern for the Japanese public as taxpayers subsidizing the coffers. In the 1990s Japan’s civil society successfully changed the course of Japan’s development aid to India. By educating Japanese parliamentarians about the dangers posed to some 152,000 project-affected persons in regions scheduled for submergence under the vast Narmada Dam network, and the million who would be impacted by secondary displacement, Japan’s citizen activists leveraged international society to terminate government loans earmarked for the project (Baviskar 1995). Under the IJNA, the Indian government has planned three new nuclear power stations to be contracted with Japanese nuclear corporations, Jaitapur NPP (Maharashtra), Mitthi Virdi NPP (Gujarat), and Kovvada NPP (Andhra Pradesh). Activists estimate that primary removals to clear land for reactor construction and related ecological damage to fisheries would trigger displacement of some 150,000 people across the three sites. Loss of livelihood from environmental destruction is projected to spur displacement of several hundred thousand more, and cause a massive population shift to urban centers. Drawing from the repertoire of what Bhadra has termed “disaster scripting,” opponents raise the spectre of a nuclear Bhopal in the event of a nuclear accident, highlighting the lack of regulator transparency, inadequate safety culture, absence of legitimate evacuation plans, and critically, noting that radioactive contamination is “long-term, irreversible, genetic, and essentially, unrestrained in time and space.”

During their meetings with Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Indian activists asked Japanese government officials how they would respond to the rural Indian communities who had suffered police brutality for anti-nuclear protests, who had already lost their lives, or those whose land and homes would be expropriated for Japanese sponsored reactor construction. Foreign Ministry officials replied matter-of-factly that these were “internal affairs” of the Indian state, and out of place in foreign policy discussions. The Japanese government would do well to think through this position carefully, however. The inconvenience of unruly villagers who refuse to relinquish their ancestral lands is one that will not disappear, but will certainly fester and metastasize. Indeed this is a foreign-born “domestic problem” with the potential to thoroughly unravel the moral authority of the Japanese nation as a respected member of the international global order. And Prime Minister Abe, who together with conservative colleagues has recently been so invested in restoring Japan’s honor by revising historical accounts of the Nanjing Massacre and wartime legacies of sexual slavery, would be well advised to consider what options, if any, remain beyond signing the deal.

[1]According to an NHK public opinion poll, 48% of the public is opposed to restarting domestic nuclear power plants, 17% are in favor, and 28% remain undecided (NHK, August 7-9, 2015).


Maia Sikina is engaged in studies of science and energy policy in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Image credits:

Linda Gelfman,"El Kookooee,fear"
Linda Gelfman,"El Kookooee, hunger"
Linda Gelfman,"El Kookooee, monster"
Linda Gelfman,"El Kookooee, requiem"

El cucuy(el kookooee)is the traditional Mexican bogeyman parents use to scare kids to behave. El Kookooee is a twenty-five ft. tall effigy representing the fear monster which resides in us all which is burned each fall in a community cleansing ceremony in South Valley, New Mexico.

Copyright © Maia Sikina. All rights reserved.

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