Workers at the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido were preparing on May 5 to power down the plant's No. 3 reactor and leave Japan nuclear-free for the first time in 42 years.
The reactor—the last one operating in the country—was due to be taken offline at around 11 p.m. to undergo regular safety inspection. All of the 49 other nuclear reactors in Japan have been suspended, either because of damage from the Great East Japan Earthquake or because they were shut down for regular checkups and never brought back online.
But, despite the historic shutdown, there is little sense of triumphalism among anti-nuclear activists. Many say they have yet to see the sort of permanent change in public opinion that would block a government push to restart Japan’s nuclear reactors.
Yui Kimura, a 59-year-old member of the Nuclear Phase-Out TEPCO Shareholder's Movement, said the temporary halt to Japan's nuclear program is more of a source of worry than joy.
"It is the (Fukushima) accident not public opinion that shut down the nuclear reactors," Kimura said. "I cannot be unreservedly happy about this."
Kimura became an anti-nuclear activist following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident and ran unsuccessfully for Japan's Upper House on an anti-nuclear ticket three years later.
But she said she watched public interest quickly fade away following the shock of the Chernobyl accident, and is worried that a similar process may be under way following the Fukushima crisis.
"A majority of respondents in opinion polls oppose the use of nuclear power, but few of them come to join demonstrations," Kimura said. "People have yet to recognize that nothing will change unless they take an action. If things go on like this, nuclear reactors will be back online soon."
An anti-nuclear drive backed by Nobel Prize-winning writer Kenzaburo Oe to collect 10 million signatures by the end of February ended up with about 5 million.
During a news conference held in February at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, one foreign journalist asked why fewer people in Japan joined anti-nuclear demonstrations than in Europe.
"I believe the Japanese will make a new resolve," Oe answered.
Yasunari Fujimoto, a 56-year-old member of the 10 Million People's Action secretariat, which was responsible for organizing the signature campaign, said: "There are high hurdles to abolishing nuclear plants, but the government has not managed to restart nuclear reactors because so many people protested. If people continue raising critical voices, the politicians will have to take them into consideration."
Fujimoto said the group hoped to continue collecting signatures until the end of May and hold a rally of about 100,000 people in Tokyo in July.
But writer Keiko Ochiai, who also attended the news conference, was less sanguine. "I am worried that the waves have partially receded," she said.
Part of the reason for the pessimism among some in the anti-nuclear camp is a clear determination at the highest levels of government to push ahead with a revival of the nuclear industry despite public concern.
A pivotal date for some was April 13, when Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and three of his Cabinet ministers met at the Prime Minister's Official Residence and backed the restart of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors of the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.
A large group of protestors gathered around the Prime Minister's Official Residence when the meeting began at around 6:30 p.m. Company employees in suits and homemakers, who had learned about the protest on Twitter, braved cold rain and shouted slogans like "Stop the restarts" and "We don't need nuclear power."
The protest was a culmination of a series of demonstrations organized in the Tokyo metropolitan area, which started with only 350 at the first event but grew to about 1,600 people by the third demonstration on April 13.
However, disappointment quickly spread through the crowd when they learned, at around 8 p.m., that the government had endorsed the restart plan.
"Let's keep calling loud for no nuke power," said Taichi Hirano, a 27-year-old nursing care worker from Tokyo’s Suginami Ward and one of the core members of the organizing group.
"People who were just tweeting on Twitter could no longer put up with the nastiness of the government and came here," he said. "There must be a lot more people who want to speak up."
Others were less positive. Rei Abe, a 24-year-old resident of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, said he had joined a campaign to collect signatures to seek a local referendum on the use of nuclear power in Tokyo in December.
He had attended demonstrations but was wondering about their effect. "We can shout, but no nuclear reactor will shut down."
Abe said he saw more hope in an official petition, because it was part of a clearly defined legal process, and spent three months collecting signatures.
The campaign ended up collecting 100,000 more signatures than required and its organizers are planning to officially petition Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara on May 10 to carry out a referendum on the use of nuclear power.
There is no indication, however, that the Tokyo metropolitan assembly, which would be responsible for deciding to conduct such a referendum, will back the plan.
"Nothing has changed about politics, despite the enormous scale of the (Fukushima) accident," Abe said.
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