Part 2: An Extended version of our Interview with Kyoto Activist Aileen Mioko Smith published in KJ 99: Travel, Revisited, Dec. 2020
By Jennifer Teeter and Ken Rodgers. All photos are courtesy of and subject to copyright by Aileen Mioko Smith.
This is the second part of an October 2020 interview with long-time Kyoto activist Aileen Mioko Smith by KJ editors Jennifer Teeter and Ken Rodgers. Aileen describes her 40 years of opposition to nuclear power, starting with her work on Three Mile Island. Sharing insights on issues including citizen’s opposition to reprocessing programs, aging reactors in the Kansai region, the impacts of earthquakes and volcanos on reactors, insufficient evacuation plans, and the present situation in Fukushima, she also makes recommendations on how to engender a safer and more sustainable energy future for Japan, independent from nuclear power.
Part 1 (‘Documenting Minamata with W. Eugene Smith’) was published in KJ 99 in December 2020, and appears online here.
1979 Three Mile Island accident
1980 Minamata Japanese version published
1982 Nakao Hajime and Aileen document Three Mile Island for 7 months
1990 Stop the Monju established
1991 Steam generator tube failure at Mihama plant
1999 BNFL Mox fuel quality control data falsification results in delay of plutonium program
2016 Japanese government decides to decommission Monju
KJ: How did you start working towards stopping nuclear power?
I started hearing about the nuclear power issue through the translator of the Japanese language edition of Minamata, Nakao Hajime. The Three Mile Island accident happened in March 1979, just a year before it got published. Hajime was involved in the very first lawsuit trying to stop nuclear power in Japan. When the accident at Three Mile Island happened, people noticed all sorts of physical things like metallic smell and taste, changes in the color of the air, changes in vegetation and birds, et cetera, et cetera. Some people had tingling also going through their body and were getting really hot, all sorts of things. It connected with Minamata, where all the scientists were saying, “There are only acute cases. Everybody else is fine. There’s no problem,” whereas the local people were suffering in a really widespread way. Local people had to do go to the Kumamoto doctors and convince them to come down and examine them.
From my experience of what happened in Minamata, I felt it was really important to interview and record these people’s experiences. So after having conducted short interviews earlier, Hajime and I went to Three Mile Island in the fall of 1982 and lived there and did lots of interviews for half a year. People we interviewed said, “Japan must not have any nuclear power, because you’re seismically so active.” And we said, “No, there are nuclear power plants.” “Well, how many?” I didn’t even know how many. I didn’t even know how many were around Kyoto. To answer them, I had to find out, and I learned that there were so many right near Kyoto. Over and over again, the people of Three Mile Island said, “Don’t go back to such a dangerous place. You must stay here.” The Three Mile Island site was still operating but with only one reactor, versus Japan, this seismic country, with 17 nuclear power reactors at the time, many of them near Kyoto.
After we came back to Japan, everybody working on trying to stop nuclear power wanted to hear about the experience of people at Three Mile Island. It ended up being this incredible introduction to the whole citizens’ struggle from Hokkaido to Kyushu. I was invited to come and speak. Opposition movements were active all over Japan, in places trying to prevent a plant from being built or in those where one had already been built.
The whole time you were doing this work you were raising your daughter?
When I really phased into the fight to try to stop nuclear power in Japan, Hajime and I had gotten married, and we had a baby, Mana, and I was breastfeeding her during one of the first talks I gave. This was 1984 and people didn’t know where to look.
We gave a talk about Karen Silkwood and we had interviewed atomic soldiers too, soldiers in the US military who had been exposed to radiation from nuclear weapons testing, explaining their experiences, the physical things that they noticed, which overlapped with what people in Three Mile Island experienced. So, as Jennifer knows, when your child is young, there’s no school. You and your child are a package together and you go all over the place. Paper diapers had just started but I was refusing, so it was all cloth. I still remember washing the poop as I was being introduced on stage. There was no hoikui at that point where I could have Mana watched by other people if I wanted to give a talk. Gradually, not just talking about Three Mile Island, I got involved with the issues around the Kyoto plants. Part of it was a serious corrosion problem in the steam generator pipes, which sound like it’s just steam but it’s not. The steam generator tubes are part of the whole reactor system, and if they rupture, you could have a dangerous loss of coolant accident, like the loss of coolant at Three Mile Island. I had given well over a hundred talks, and then a steam generator tube did rupture at Mihama, in 1991.
Citizens were saying it’s dangerous, you have got to stop the reactors. The rupture became national news. It didn’t cause a meltdown, but it was a very precarious situation. I remember we all went to Kansai Electric and we negotiated with the top leadership there in the Kansai Electric Hall, a big hall. We were there overnight with our little kids. Somewhere around two in the middle of the night the top executives started to run away. They were on stage and they started just leaving. Several of us moms, we just put our kids on the seats, jumped on the stage and went after them backstage. That was one of Mana’s first memories in life. Suddenly she’s on one of these chairs and she sees mom climbing up on stage and running off. We did not stop the plants, but they did have to get new steam generators, which was a very costly thing.
What about your work to stop Japan’s plutonium programs?
The first half of my anti-nuclear work, the first ten or fifteen years, mostly had to do with stopping Japan’s plutonium program. Japan still has a plan to use plutonium, which is a nuclear weapons capable material. Six kilograms were in the Nagasaki bomb. And the plan is to generate hundreds of tons of this material and circulate it as fuel and burn it as fuel in reactors designed to burn plutonium and also reactors designed not to burn plutonium, but uranium instead, mixing the plutonium together with the uranium and throwing it in those reactors.
One of the first things I specifically worked on was trying to stop the fast breeder reactor Monju. Another woman and I, Ikejima Fukiko, started the group Stop the Monju in the beginning of 1990. I was the head of it for the first couple of years and then she continued working on it all the way. It took years and years but the government decided in 2016 that Monju would finally be shut down permanently.
The other case was the pluthermal program, the use of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, which is mixed uranium and plutonium fuel, for use in operating reactors in Japan. We were able to stop the program in 1999. This was a really big success. We weren’t able to cancel the program, but we were able to delay it by almost a decade.
I always say that any kind of citizen movement is like judo, aikido or shiatsu because the other party is really powerful. Basically, we have to figure out how to use their power. And it’s like shiatsu because it’s like finding the right pressure point. There are all these problems, but where do you press that then makes everything unravel? The technique is an art.
In this case of the pluthermal program, Kansai Electric and the company that was making the fuel, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, although they’re both on the pro nuclear side, their interests are not necessarily the same. Citizens are much greater in number, but smaller in power. But we all can be united in our goal, and that power is really strong. Connecting people is really important. Lots of people worked on this issue but about a dozen were central to it. I was one of those people, and we ran an around-the-clock operation. I was really most involved in connecting everybody, connecting the Fukui people to the Kansai people to the Tokyo people, to the activists in Europe. What we were trying to do is prove that the fuel that had been sent from the UK for the reactor in Takahama had falsified quality control data.
We finally nailed them by finding the falsifications. The night before the Fukui governor was going to give the final approval, we were able to finally get Kansai Electric on its knees and say that there was falsified fuel and that they wouldn’t use it, and then the whole program kind of blew apart. Then the next place that was going to use that fuel was Fukushima. So we joined with citizens in Fukushima and there, even the governor was opposed to it. I thought the governor would be murdered, but instead they cooked up something where he would get indicted and found guilty of bribery, a crime he said he didn’t commit, and I believe he didn’t do it.
The next place they were to start up the program was Niigata, at the Tokyo Electric Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which is the largest nuclear power complex in the world. In the villages of Kariwa we cooperated in a referendum where the citizens themselves said they didn’t want the program. So Kariwa was about democracy. Even someone who was pro-nuclear said, “This is the first time we actually got to say for ourselves what we wanted.”
Because it’s such a nuclear dependent village, it looked like the pro people would win. Whereas the older people, especially the women, many who did not tell the men in their household how they would vote, were the majority. And that’s why the village went to no instead of yes.
We won that and as a result, the whole program got delayed by almost 10 years, until just before the Fukushima accident. The fuel had just started being used in Fukushima when the accident happened. Whereas if we hadn’t stopped it, the fuel would have been used for a full decade. That was a big win, in the sense that the program has gotten so damaged because of what we did and then the Fukushima accident took over as far as delaying that program. It’s in pretty bad shape right now, the plutonium program is just hobbling along, but still the government wants to continue it.
And we did work a lot on trying to stop the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. The final date for it to start up has been delayed 25 times. Right now it’s scheduled for 2023.
What does the Rokkasho plant do?
It’s a plant for reprocessing the nuclear fuel that was being used up in nuclear power plants all around Japan, shipping it to Rokkasho in Aomori Prefecture and then taking out the plutonium from that spent fuel. Basically every nuclear power plant produces plutonium, which hardly exists naturally in the world. So you have a lot of this plutonium, which is nuclear-weapons-capable material inside the used spent fuel. The idea is then to take it to Rokkasho, chop up the fuel and mix it up with nitric acid and make it all this huge, absolutely horrendous gunk of radioactive material and extract that plutonium.
Rokkasho is designed to extract seven, eight tons of plutonium a year. You can imagine there’s about 100 tons of plutonium inside nuclear weapons in the US, but here’s this non-nuclear weapons state using it as a civil program, a commercial program. Companies use this material, ship it around. It gets burned everywhere. If you’re opposing nuclear weapons, you want to stop it from entering the civil industry, corporate industry. And the front line to prevent that is us in Japan trying to stop this program in order to prevent the commercial use of this nuclear-weapons-capable material. Next year (2021) would be the year to really work on stopping Rokkasho, a really important fight. These fights are difficult, because when it comes to a head, it’s almost last minute. Before that, you could be opposing it, but nothing happens as there’s not enough attention being put on it where you can actually get it stopped. You basically lay the groundwork, and then try to stop it as much as possible when it does come to a head, when it’s about to be actually turned on and operated.
One more issue that we work on a lot is aging reactors. Now in Kansai, there are three reactors that have gotten approval to operate beyond 40 years, even though on principle reactors are supposed to operate only up to 40 years. They gave, quote unquote, “exceptions” to these three reactors. Once these reactors have actually finished their refurbishment and start operating, then they’ll probably be more and more “exceptions” made for other places. That means that nuclear power will stay around a lot longer, with a fleet that’s older than 40 years and kind of rumbling along, really aged. There’s been a lot of refurbishment, but the original reactor pressure vessel and lots of cables around it can’t be redone. Because there’s been so much effective opposition to new nuclear power plants being built, we’re really worried that they’re going to try to keep going with these old plants, even though they’re rickety, as long as possible, and there’ll be a really disastrous accident as a result. I’m involved in a lawsuit against the government that I just came back from yesterday in Nagoya to try to stop those reactors.
Another big issue is that Japan is well-known to be a land of a lot of earthquakes and volcanoes. Just recently, an appellate court verdict in Kyushu ruled that the government was responsible for the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011 because the regulatory authorities knew that a huge tsunami could hit it, but they didn’t make the utility take preventive measures, and as a result, the disaster happened.
On the volcano issue, they found that the ash falling on the plants could be much more dangerous than previously thought. And they know that the Kansai Electric’s Takahama Units 3 and 4 do not meet the new regulation for preparedness for volcanic ash. But they’re allowing the plant to operate. And we just filed a lawsuit at the Nagoya District Court on October 5th .**
One more issue we’re working on is evacuation, because we know from Fukushima that so many people have to evacuate. For example, just in Kyoto prefecture, if a major accident happens and the evacuation plan is triggered, over 125,000 people would have to evacuate from near the plants up in Fukui. In the town of Maizuru, in northern Kyoto prefecture, all 88,000 people have to evacuate, 65,000 of which we would have to take into Kyoto City. Other nuclear power plants have larger populations within the 30 mile radius—even up to almost half a million.
Jennifer: From what I remember when we went to the meeting with Kyoto City Hall, they were saying they don’t have a proper plan to accommodate everyone?
Exactly, one [problem] is not enough buses to get people out of there. But once they come, various universities and even high schools are supposed to be evacuation points for victims that might be contaminated running away from radiation. There’s no proper way of testing them before coming down and no place to put the cars—and where do you clean the cars? We’ve been maybe more than 100 times to local or prefectural governments either in Kyoto or Fukui to address this issue. In our NGO network, I’m in charge of addressing the eight towns and cities in northern Kyoto prefecture that would have to evacuate people. We’re trying to get them to have it all ready for when the accident happens. The chain of command is all messy too, with lots of problems, so we’ve done booklets on it and circulate them to legislators and facilities like senior residences that would have to evacuate people. Prefectural legislators say these booklets are so informative and great, but nothing happens.
Everybody knows evacuation can’t be done, but nobody in the bureaucracy speaks up and says anything because they’re basically in their position for three years to five years, and their job is to not create any waves until they get transferred somewhere else. So no changes happen. This is the same with the Japanese government and the ministries, too. You just have to run the status quo well, until you’re not in that government post anymore. Hardly anyone is motivated or courageous enough to say this is a big mistake.
You’re involved in other lawsuits too, right?
I’m a co-chief plaintiff for the lawsuit now in Osaka District Court. It’s an administrative one, against the national government, to try to stop the Ohi Unit 3 for having an illegal license to operate. And the key argument is that the seismic assessment is not according to their own nuclear regulatory authority guidelines.
The verdict will be on December 4th.*** And we’ll see. Right now, we lose most of the lawsuits all around Japan. There is a lawsuit against every major plant, multiple lawsuits from people all over working on this. So, although we lose most, we win some. And that creates a situation where it’s unstable for the electric utilities, because they don’t have their business plan completely under their control.
What is the current situation with Fukushima?
I was involved more in the first two years where busloads of Fukushima people, the majority were moms and their children, came down to Tokyo and we went to MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) to demand that the annual acceptable level for school grounds be brought down to 1 millisievert from 20 millisieverts. It did trigger more decontamination for all areas, not just schools, and prevented the government from being too cavalier about allowing accident victims still living in the contaminated areas to be exposed to high levels of allowable exposure.
When I first heard about the accident, I was in San Francisco, it was the night of March 10th there. I was with Mana—it was our first vacation since she was born. One of the first things I remember doing is again, connecting people. The Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), an anti-nuclear group based in Washington, DC, had contacted me saying they could get hold of radiation detection monitors. I contacted Tokyo activists who could then facilitate delivery to the hands of Fukushima parents. Those monitors were the first to measure the schools. So parents, the actual people who are living there, who are getting the radiation, could measure it by themselves. And that blew open the fact that the schools were very contaminated. The parents being able to monitor the levels at the schools and then citizens announcing it broke open the issue that the government was hiding data, and that was very early on, like within the first couple of weeks after the accident.
The way the government wants to hide the spread and later on try to make it all go away, as though the radiation didn’t cause any problems, is to conduct a health survey that’s really lousy—because once you have a lousy survey and can generate really bad basic data, then whatever outcome happens like cancers, it doesn’t match with the actual exposure the person really had. Then all these cancers can’t be tagged to the nuclear accident. So they set up this horrible study, but they only had it in Japanese and they didn’t translate it. It’s hard to get international criticism about the study design when nobody can read the Japanese and see what’s wrong with it, so Green Action was involved in getting a whole team of people to translate it, which itself was really hard because everybody’s kind of volunteer and mostly lay people. But we got it translated and it’s up on our website, but who looks at that? That was way back at the beginning of the first year of the accident. Since then, I mainly work with evacuees that have come to Kansai and we go to meetings in Kyoto prefecture to address not making this happen again, a second Fukushima.
What is your main priority now?
Right now, if we have a second Fukushima, it’s probably going to be worse because most of the radiation went out over the ocean from Fukushima, but for example, from the Fukui plants, it will all come inland and it really can wreck our lives. Trying to prevent that from happening has to be an all-out effort that keeps going.
We have to work on the climate issue in Japan and that’s also why we work on nuclear power. We have to be worried about the economy of Japan, and therefore we work on nuclear power. Usually it’s turned upside-down, where you say climate is such a big issue, therefore you have to have everything, including kind of a necessary evil called nuclear power, or the argument that economics is important so these big corporations have to keep running. Usually those are the two arguments that are used. But actually you have to turn it on its head. Even for the economic viability of Japan, it’s really important to end nuclear power.
The reason I say that working on stopping nuclear power is actually working on the climate issue is that although it’s true that when the nuclear power plants shut down after Fukushima Japan was basically [dependent on] coal and oil, meaning fossil fuels, and hydro. So nuclear power shuts down, then you have to turn on all your old coal-fired plants, and that’s really bad for climate change. The reason that happened is that you never had a plan to really reduce coal. Nuclear power plants have old technology coal-fired power plants assigned as back-up plants if and when reactors shut down.
After the Kyoto Protocol, nuclear was and continues to be this big roadblock towards making really necessary improvements in the reduction of energy use and in increasing renewables. “We’ll run all nuclear reactors currently operating plus construct 21 more by 2010.” That was the bulk of Japan’s global warming gases reduction “plan”. But only eight plants got built. For sure the government knew most won’t get built due to local opposition, problems in siting, etc. And now it’s so costly to build nuclear reactors plus there is such a lag time before they do get built if they ever do, that you are really exacerbating the climate problem rather than solving it.
What you end up doing is saying we’ll count on nuclear to do this big part of our climate task of reducing CO2. You already know it can’t happen with nuclear. But you just write a plan and say this big block here is going to be done by nuclear and then you don’t have to work on the other stuff because on paper, you’re already doing a lot of work on climate. It’s a way of buying time. Relying on nuclear power when it doesn’t deliver is really bad for working on the climate issue.
The other problem is that a lot of subsidies are going into nuclear power, especially the back end like Rokkasho, instead of investing in better energy plans, especially conservation and renewables.
Nuclear power is acting as a roadblock to development of renewable energy technology and preventing renewable energy companies from becoming viable. If nuclear were out of the way, they could blossom more. In overall analysis, nuclear has a negative effect on global warming and new nuclear is just out of the question because the cost is so high that the same amount of money that you will put into new nuclear power, you can put into conservation and renewables and have gas reduction benefits many times over. New nuclear is definitely bad for global warming, and the old plants are structurally preventing more renewables and more conservation from going forward.
Preventing the use of plutonium is a security issue because plutonium is a nuclear weapons capable material. It’s also a safety issue for all these reactors. Ending nuclear power is about making things much more community-based. With nuclear power the money goes just to these big companies and to Tokyo. Whereas if you stop these big projects like nuclear power, or big dams, you can generate a healthier economy. It’s good for local communities and many more jobs can be generated through non-nuclear ways of either reducing energy or creating clean, sustainable energy. Small scale goes for renewables too. Small scale is good. Conservation and efficiency should be half the mix. Not needing to produce as much energy is the key.
So the issues are safety, the importance of community and good jobs for people, and stopping nuclear proliferation—those are the big three issues I’ve been working on over the last four decades.
**The first hearing was held January 27th and 28th, 2021.
***[UPDATE: Significantly, the Osaka District court verdict supported the citizen plaintiffs, meaning the court rescinded the regulatory operating license for the Ohi nuclear plants 3 & 4, ruling it illegal. This brings the structural integrity of other plants into question because the government allowed all utilities to neglect the same regulation for all post-Fukushima restart approvals. This is a serious upset for the operating companies.]