Berkeley and Tokyo: Anti-Nuclear Parallels?

Given the recent events in Japan, many around the world have raised new (and old) concerns about nuclear energy and its risks, which has made me a little more thoughtful about those espousing these opinions closer to home. On my walks to campus lately, I snapped the picture above—this group of older people seems to stand on the fringes of the UC Berkeley campus on most days, holding various banners criticizing the university for its relationship with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Photo: “nuclear free zone” by dotpolka

Berkeley is one of the more well-known “nuclear-free” communities in the US. Its citizens passed the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act in 1986, which allows the city to levy fines for nuclear weapons-related activity and to boycott companies involved in the United States nuclear infrastructure. As you enter Berkeley from various direction, you see “nuclear-free zone” signs (like the one above).

However, UC Berkeley the institution has strong ties to nuclear development, which results in more than a bit of conflict between the city and the university, at least on paper. Because the University of California is a state institution, it is not subject to Berkeley’s municipal regulations—nuclear ban included. UC Berkeley was deeply involved in the history of nuclear weapons. In 1942, Robert Oppenheimer (later dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb”) was asked by University of Chicago physicist Arthur Compton to work with him on studying the feasibility of producing a nuclear weapon. A subsequent June 1942 meeting at UC Berkeley resulted in the theoretical basis for the design of the atomic bomb, which was further developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (a US nuclear weapons design facility) during World War II. Until 2006, the University of California system managed operations at Los Alamos, and it continues to manage the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Also, at the time the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act was passed, UC Berkeley operated a nuclear reactor for research purposes, which it continued to operate after the act went into effect. Berkeley also has major freeway and train lines which are used in transporting nuclear materials.

It’s my impression that most students at UC Berkeley think that the ban is kind of silly (if they’re aware of it at all). Many just chock it up to one of those quirky hippie tendencies that mark so many aspects of Berkeley life (the city also voted to impeach President George W. Bush in 2006, for example). Others think that it’s completely silly, since it doesn’t have any effect on what actually goes on in and around Berkeley. Most of the recent demonstrations I’ve seen seem to be populated by older Berkeley folks such as the ones you see in these pictures—it doesn’t seem like the earthquake has prompted much concern on the part of young Berkeley residents.

Photo: Copyright All rights reserved by Greenpeace Australia Pacific

In Japan, however, there’s been visible unrest over nuclear issues of late, with a number of petitions and protests being launched by a wide range of citizens. Just last week, several thousand demonstrators marched through the streets of Tokyo calling for the abolition of all nuclear power in Japan. The protest came after Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, asked for an immediate shutdown of the Hamaoka nuclear plant (located 200 km southwest of Tokyo) due to worries that another strong earthquake could cause another nuclear crisis. (The protesters welcomed the PM’s request.) I’m sure there have been a number of others, but it definitely caught my eye when 15,000 people gathered for an anti-nuclear demonstration in Koenji back in April (great pictures here).

Photo: Time Out Tokyo

For Japan and its typically quite docile civil society, these are really notable events. The concerns being voiced are fueled mostly by the recent disaster in Japan and the concern that another earthquake (like the “big one” that has long been prophesied to occur in the Tokyo area) could cause “another Fukushima.” The concerns also seem to be a reflection of broader discontent with the government’s handling of the disaster and frustrations about the slow disclosure of information. The sign below is a good example of that sentiment. It says, “What do you do in case of nuclear accident? Teach your children don’t trust your government.”

Photo: Time Out Tokyo

To me, the anti-nuclear sentiment in these two places seems pretty different. The majority of the Berkeley anti-nuclear sentiment is driven by issues of war, centered on weapons that use this technology and espoused by peace activists. Certainly there’s an element of concern about safety and nuclear power, but that isn’t the dominant force in the movement. The current sentiment in Japan, however, unites all of these issues under one umbrella, at least for the moment. In contrast to Berkeley, Japan’s anti-nuclear sentiment is driven primarily by issues of safety, centered on nuclear power plants and espoused by a much wider portion of society. But there are also very strong feelings about nuclear weapons that exist in Japan, which is understandable, since it is the only country to have ever suffered the devastation of nuclear weapons first-hand. The two lines of argument are linked as part of a larger debate that has mobilized an unusually large number of people. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima are all events that the Japanese people never want to face ever again.

Photo: Time Out Tokyo

It will be interesting to see how this debate will develop in the future and how the different strands of the anti-nuclear movement will continue to relate to one another. Japan certainly faces some tough questions regarding its energy policy. While nuclear energy played an important role in reducing Japan’s dependence on oil and creating employment in some rural areas, concerns about safety are very real and seem completely valid in light of recent events.

What are your thoughts on nuclear power? Did the recent disaster in Japan make you rethink any of your previously held notions?