Rokkasho is a small village in Aomori prefecture in northern Japan. Historically it has been primarily a fishing town, however today it is more famous for its nuclear complex. This complex includes a uranium enrichment plant which started partial operations in 1992, a MOX (plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide fuel) fabrication facility, a low level nuclear waste storage facility which opened in December 1992, a high level nuclear waste temporary storage facility, and lastly the Rokkasho reprocessing plant which began construction in 1993 and has now been delayed for the 24th time since then . The central government of Japan has provided monetary compensation for the town of Rokkasho, including around 20bn yen in 1995, which was used to build a new gymnasium, museum and a golf course . Apart from the monetary subsidies, the huge nuclear project owned by Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) provided a lot of jobs for Rokkasho residents, thus making the entire village highly dependent on the nuclear complex.
Currently around 5000 people, which is roughly half of Rokkasho’s entire population are employed at one of the nuclear projects in Rokkasho . At the moment, spent nuclear fuel is being shipped to the UK, France and Germany for reprocessing, before being shipped back to Japan for storage. As part of Japan’s national nuclear cycle strategy they want to be able to reprocess the spent nuclear fuel locally, which is why the Rokkasho reprocessing plant is so significant politically. Japan first began shipping away their spent nuclear fuel for offshore reprocessing in 1995 after an accident which forced the shutdown of a fast-breeder reactor (reactors that create more fuel than they consume) in Monju (https://ejatlas.org/conflict/the-fast-breeder-reacton-monju-japan) .
Japan has the largest stockpile of plutonium out of all countries in the world that have a non-nuclear weapons policy . According to Foreign Policy, due to the fact that Japan currently only has 5 reactors operating, there is “no way Japan can operate Rokkasho without piling up tons of plutonium for years on end” . This creates concerns both for Japanese people and the international community. Residents of Rokkasho live as close as a kilometre away from the various nuclear projects and facilities, and many of them are concerned about radioactive pollution in the water and air. Another major concern of activist groups and residents is the fact that radioactivity is invisible, making it very difficult to guarantee the safety of marine products, as well as the quality of the air and water in Rokkasho and Aomori . This is also a concern that incites fear in a lot of people, because even if cases of diseases such as cancer were discovered in the area, it would be extremely difficult to prove its causes or link those cases to the nuclear complex .
Apart from the fact that the Japanese government is still pro-nuclear energy and very committed to closing the nuclear fuel cycle through establishing nuclear reprocessing, there are two other major reasons for why the Rokkasho reprocessing plant “must” go on. One is that the central government has already spend such exorbitant amounts of funds on this project that it would be a huge economic loss to abandon it now; the second is the fact that all the other facilities of the Rokkasho complex have large sunk costs, which cannot be recovered if the reprocessing plant is abandoned and thereby sufficient revenue is not generated . The reason why the completion of the Rokkasho reprocessing plant was delayed for the 24th and most recent time is because it was revealed that Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited had failed to conduct certain required safety check-ups for over a decade . This piece of news which came out in October this year (2017) can surely have no other impact than causing additional concern for the residents of Rokkasho.
Mobilisation against reprocessing plant: There have been varied forms of protest and awareness creating campaigns in regards to Rokkasho over the last couple of decades. In 2006 the documentary Rokkasho Rhapsody, directed by Hitomi Kamanaka was released. There is also an ongoing artistic project called Stop Rokkasho, created by Ryuichi Sakamoto, where local and international musicians, painters, photographers and designers have submitted creative works in direct protest to Rokkasho and to create awareness about the dangers of nuclear energy . Among Rokkasho residents some of the biggest voices of resistance has come from the individuals who participated in ‘Rokkasho Rhapsody’ including Keiko Kikukawa, owner of the “Land of Flowers and Herbs” who has been protesting loudly for over 16 years, and Tomekochi Sakai, former fisherman and central figure of the anti-nuclear reprocessing plant movement . In 2008, citizens of Aomori submitted a petition that had garnered 850,000 signatures to the Cabinet Office of Japan and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry .
Mobilisation against high-level radioactive waste storage facility: Protests against this facility began as early as 1985 when citizens made a petition for its closing, which was ultimately unsuccessful . In 1986 a group formed of local fishing people and farmers. They staged a protest which was name the ‘Battle at Sea’ where they “tried to block Japan’s Marine Security Guard from surveying the coast as part of the planning efforts for the NFCF” (Nuclear Fuel Cycle Facility) . This waste storage facility was always meant to be temporary, until the location of a permanent one was decided upon. However, residents have been very concerned for a long time that unless they resist, the government will not keep its word and indeed find a new waste storage site . In 1998 as a ship carrying 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste arrived in Aomori from the UK where it had been reprocessed, local activists staged a sitting protest in an attempt to block the port in Rokkasho, and the governor of Aomori at the time also tried to ban this ship from docking . In 1992 about one hundred local residents protested by trying to block the gates to the waste storage facility as trucks full of nuclear waste were entering, however the protest was shut down with some minor complications .