Religious Leaders Team Up in Court to Suspend Operations at Japan’s Major Nuclear Reprocessing Plant

Tokyo Shinbun March 17, 2020

By Natsuko Katayama

A group of 211 Japanese Buddhist, Christian, and Shinto priests and lay persons have presented a suit in the Tokyo District Court calling for the suspension of operations at the Rokkasho Nuclear Reprocessing Plant operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (Nihon Gen-nen), located in Aomori on the northern tip of the main island of Honshu. The plaintiff organization is the ecumenical, non-affiliated Interfaith Forum for the Review of National Nuclear Policy. This is the first time that the Forum has become a plaintiff bringing a suit in a court of law. Their background is an almost 30-year history of opposing nuclear energy in Japan.

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The background begins in January 1984, when Rev. Masakazu Iwata—the now 77-year-old minister of the Hachinohe branch in Aomori of the United Church of Christ in Japan—received a great shock from an article in the news. This article reported that a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that would recycle the used nuclear fuel from the enriched uranium used in nuclear reactors across Japan was going to be built on the Shimokita Peninsula just north of Hachinohe.

After the town of Rokkasho (some 58 kms north of Hachinohe) was selected as the site for this plant, Rev. Iwata began a protest movement together with farming families located on the designated site to stop the construction which would begin in 1993. However, the appeal could not gain widespread support, and Iwata looks back on it saying, “It was a very difficult battle”.

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Rev. Masakazu Iwata

In the same year as the construction began, the Interfaith Forum was established. Rev. Iwata explains that, “It came from a critical reflection on the lack of opposition to the Pacific War by Japanese clergy of all religions. We saw the link between nuclear energy, national policy, and the potential use of plutonium by the military. We also came together across denominational lines so as to prevent the outbreak of war from happening again.” As various incidents have arisen on the nuclear issue in Japan over the years, the Forum has issued critical declarations and held negotiations with Japan’s large electrical companies, local governments, and various central government ministries. In 2018, the office of the plaintiffs—located at the Kenju-in Jodo Pure Land Buddhist temple of Rev. Hidehito Okochi in the center of Tokyo—hosted members of the Forum to reflect on the latest issues and meet with an association of lawyers interested in collaboration. The Forum has now become the main plaintiff for this new litigation, and Rev. Iwata is acting as a co-representative of the plaintiffs. He raises the question, “Is our judicial branch properly independent from party politics? Shouldn’t there be a separation of power between the three branches of government?” These are important issues to raise.”

After the triple disaster of March 11th, 2011 in Northeast Japan, there were appeals to stop the operations of nuclear reactors through court cases and temporary injunctions. While these appeals were sometimes accepted, they were often eventually overturned by higher courts. The members of the Forum are in agreement that this situation is to the benefit of the government, and so they have concluded that, “We have to work on influencing the judiciary.” In this way, they resolved to bring litigation into the courts on the problem of nuclear reactors and the recycling of fuel from the standpoint of clergy concerned about the sanctity of life and social ethics. Unable to conceal his anger over the situation, Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima—also a co-representative of the plaintiffs and the 78-year-old abbot of Myotsu-ji Shingon Buddhist temple in the city of Obama in Fukui which has the highest number of nuclear reactors in Japan—states, “Workers at nuclear power plants have become victims of radiation exposure (hibaku). Although nuclear reactors create energy for urban areas, they have posed a danger to rural areas. When an incident occurs, it will probably be covered up and operations continued.”

The reprocessing center in Rokkasho has the purpose of collecting the vast amounts of used fuel from all reactors nationwide with the yet unrealized hope to recycling this fuel for future use in such reactors. A side issue has also become the vast amounts of plutonium now being processed at this site which has the potential for use in nuclear armaments. Rev. Nakajima raises the point that, “If a major incident occurs at this reprocessing center, the impact will be beyond the damage caused by a nuclear power plant incident. All living creatures and the entire sphere of life will be contaminated and destroyed. If operations continue, there will be major long-term damage that continues on for our children and succeeding generations.”

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The litigation was formally filed on March 9th, and the text of it makes the claim that, “The operation of a reprocessing center from this point forward must not force upon future generations atomic waste,” and that, “in the event of an accident, a grave injury to our way of life will be created from the contamination. This will constitute a violation of the right to realize well-being which is further connected to the lives of future generations.” It further points out that the operation of a reprocessing facility is a violation of the Japanese constitution.

Translated and edited by Jonathan S. Watts

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