To protest the testing of nuclear weapons, the Toho Company, Ltd. produced the classic monster movie, Godzilla (1954). Director and co-author Ishirou Honda made this film in reaction to the Lucky Dragon Incident and it hit theaters six months after the Lucky Dragon returned home.

Godzilla's origins depend on which of the 28 films you watch. In the first film, Godzilla was a creature from an earlier time that had been reawakened and mutated by American hydrogen bomb tests in the South Pacific.

Bill Tsutsui, renowned scholar of all things Godzilla, notes that Godzilla's scaly skin is reminiscent of the scarring and scabbing of survivors of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus heightening the connection to the dangers of radiation from the bombs.

Japanese opposition to nuclear weapons is, of course, understandable given that they remain the only people ever to be the victims of an atomic bombing. Anti-nuclear rhetoric is common at the peace demonstrations that still take place annually on the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Notably, opposition to nuclear weapons in Japan was not the position of political outsiders, but was a policy held by the Japanese government.

The constitutional place of the military in Japan made the idea of Japan developing its own nuclear weapons untenable. Article 9 of the post-war Constitution of Japan expressly "renounce[s] war as the sovereign right of the nation" and forbids the maintenance of "land, sea, and air forces as well as other war potential." Although interpretations of this article of the constitution have changed with time, these clauses were read in a very strict sense in the 1950s.

Even Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who argued in 1957 that the development of nuclear weapons was not prohibited by Article 9, believed that it would be best not to develop them for humanitarian reasons.

Prime Minister Eisaku Satou—a staunch supporter of peaceful nuclear power—later developed Japan's famous Three Non-Nuclear Principles in 1964. These principles, which were formally adopted by the Diet in 1967, said that Japan would not possess, manufacture, or allow nuclear weapons on Japanese soil.

Recent revelations have made it clear, however, that the Japanese government did regularly and knowingly allow American naval vessels armed with nuclear weapons to call at their ports. Even though the violation of the policy had happened forty years earlier, public outrage ensued.

The Local Politics of Anti-Nuclear Protest

The nuclear power protest movement started to come into its own in the 1970s, after the construction of the first wave of nuclear reactors was completed. This period coincides with the emergence of environmental issues as a component of Japanese politics.

The national movement grew out of local, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) style protests around the sites of the early nuclear plants built in the mid-1960s to the early-1970s. Protests reflected a range of concerns, from nuclear safety to fears of disruptions in the local economy.

After initially choosing a British-designed, graphite-moderated, gas-cooled reactor for their first commercial plant, the Japanese instead decided to go with boiling water and pressurized water reactors designed by General Electric and Westinghouse. These designs had proven safer and more reliable than those designed in other countries.

The GE models required large amounts of water, however, to serve as both moderator and coolant, which meant that Japanese reactors would need to be placed on the seaside, since there were few rivers suitable to the task in Japan.

Proximity to the ocean, however, raised concerns about the plants' effects on the local fishing industry. Nuclear power plants expose water to the heat produced by nuclear fission, turning it to steam, which then pushes turbines that generate electricity. After the steam condenses back to a liquid state, it is placed in cooling towers that hold the water until it is no longer super-heated.

Many nuclear plants regularly dump this water into nearby bodies of water while it is still several degrees warmer than the water into which it is dispersed. The heated water, though free of radioactive contamination, can kill large numbers of fish, which cannot adapt to the rapid temperature change.

Several towns near nuclear plants experienced large-scale fish population decline, decimating the local economy based on fishing and in turn engendering protest from angry fishermen.

These objections were compounded by the fact that nuclear power plants were typically built in poorer areas and offered few other opportunities for development. In order to attract the plants, towns first tried to outdo one another with perks and subsidies, only later to witness disruptions in their ways of life after the plants were built.

These towns were inundated first with construction workers and then highly specialized, well-paid workers to run the plants, not all of whom were suited to a small, fishing town lifestyle. Such concerns were mostly local in nature, however.

The national anti-nuclear power protest movements began as an attempt to link local groups together and share techniques for postponing or preventing plants from being built.

The Genshiryoku Siryou Jouhoushitsu (known in English as the Citizen's Center for Nuclear Information, or CNIC), founded in 1973, was one of the main groups in the creation of a broader movement.

The CNIC's focus remained on supporting local movements, but its members also engaged in a broader effort to alert the Japanese people about the dangers of nuclear power. It published a newsletter, organized and led marches, gave lectures, produced pamphlets, circulated petitions, and trained regular people to share information with the public.

The movement was broadly successful in preventing new nuclear plants from being built by encouraging locals to oppose the issuance of permits in their areas. But it was not as successful on a national scale and failed to affect policy directly. Japanese media organizations regularly described the protest movement as weak through the 1980s.

Addicted to Atoms

Despite protests from the anti-nuclear movement, the dangers of nuclear power have historically done very little to influence Japanese policymakers.

Accidents at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979—in which a partial meltdown of one of the station's reactors led to the release of 43,000 curies of radiation—and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986—a meltdown that spread radioactive material throughout Europe and the World Health Organization predicts will shorten the lives of 4,000 people—also failed to slow the government's and utilities' plans to develop nuclear power.

Both the Kansai Electric Power Company and Tokyo Electric Power Company began construction on new nuclear reactors in 1980, the year after the incident at Three Mile Island. The construction coincidentally included Fukushima Daiichi Number 4, which was involved in the recent nuclear disaster.

Perhaps this lack of delay is understandable given the ultimately minor damage caused by the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. But the Shikoku Electric Power Company started construction on a new plant only three months after the horrifying complete meltdown at Chernobyl.

All told, Japanese utilities began construction on five nuclear power plants within 14 months of the beginning of the crisis at Chernobyl, while many other countries suspended all new construction for decades.

In part, the Japanese government did not suspend new construction because these reactors had been planned years before and had already gone through the permitting process. More tellingly, the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission's official response to Chernobyl was a short report explaining that Japanese nuclear power plants' designs were substantively different enough that a similar accident was not possible in Japan.

This point is true enough. But not delaying construction of new reactors to review standards was a singularly remarkable response to an unprecedented disaster. The response was also in line with the Japanese government's unwavering support for nuclear power.

Following the events of Chernobyl, the anti-nuclear power movement gained a fleeting national presence. Groups like the Citizen's Nuclear Information Center organized marches that mobilized tens of thousands of people in Tokyo on the first anniversary of the meltdown at Chernobyl. Fear of radioactive contamination of food imported from Europe mobilized many people. The CNIC noted that many of the protestors were women worried about their children's future in light of the dangers inherent in nuclear power.

While this boost in interest did not last all that long—with marches on subsequent anniversaries receiving smaller and smaller attendance—the months after Chernobyl did mark a notable shift in public opinion. For the first time in decades, more Japanese disapproved of nuclear power than approved.

Public approval for nuclear power remained volatile throughout the 1990s as a number of scandals tarnished the program's image, including the government cover-up of the extent of the damage caused by a sodium fire at the experimental Monju power station in 1995 and the radiation exposure caused by the Tokaimura criticality incident in 1999.

It is worth noting that new nuclear power reactor construction did not stop even in periods of popular opposition. Since construction on the first commercial reactor began in 1960, there has not been a single year when a nuclear reactor was not under construction somewhere in Japan.

The Way Forward

As of the writing of this article, there remains serious damage to units 1-4 of the Fukushima I power plant. During the days after the earthquake and tsunami, hydrogen explosions severely compromised the containment buildings of at least two of the reactors, resulting in periodic releases of radioactive steam and irradiated water.

Although electricity has been restored to units 1-4, engineers are still having difficulty keeping the fuel submerged to prevent the fuel rods from melting. High radiation levels are making any amelioration work and monitoring of the situation very difficult.

Tokyo Electric Power Company has not released official figures for the amount of radiation released as a result of the disaster, but estimates place it at only a fraction of the amount released during the incident at Chernobyl. Only time will tell the full impact of Japan's nuclear tragedy.

All of this leaves two related questions: why have the Japanese people continued to support nuclear power and what will happen to the nuclear power program in light of recent events?

Even disregarding the recent catastrophe, many of the reasons that the Japanese people accepted nuclear power to begin with may no longer hold true. Nuclear power never realized its perceived potential to change the world with nearly free power, and few around the world look to it any more as a pure expression of the future any more.

Japan managed successfully to rebuild after the war, though it has remained mired in a long recession since the 1990s. Japanese identity and Japan's place in the world are still influenced by science to a large degree and many take pride that Japan leads the world in nuclear technology. But there are other technologies that Japan leads in—like robotics—so the loss of leadership in nuclear power would not be a devastating psychological blow.

The government, the utilities, and the nuclear industry have spent the last half century promoting nuclear power as safe, futuristic, and, more recently in the past 25 years, environmentally friendly. Proponents note that it is the one source of energy that does not produce carbon dioxide. The hype turns nuclear power into a miracle of science that makes modern life possible.

With the disaster at Fukushima, Japanese people will almost certainly reexamine this marketing narrative, especially the issues of safety and environmental impact.

It is hard to talk about safety when there is a 30-kilometer evacuation zone. Radioisotopes in the drinking water do not make people think of the technology as environmentally friendly.

Doubtlessly, there will be a rigorous debate about which way Japan's energy policy should go, but the primary question remains: what is the alternative?

Nuclear power provides about 30% of all electric power in Japan today, and it could be years before this portion could be replaced with another form of power.

Even then, what type should it be? Coal and oil provide much of the energy in the world, but they are expensive to import to Japan and are arguably no safer or environmentally friendlier than nuclear power.

Consider this: the partial meltdown of one of the reactors at Three Mile Island released 43,000 curies of radiation into the surrounding area. Studies have not proven a link between this radiation exposure and a single death.

Meanwhile, in the same year, coal power plants operating in the United States alone released 6.6 million curies of radiation as part of their standard operation. Further, a Clean Air Task Force study found that air pollution from coal powered plants kills around 13,000 people every year in the United States, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 22,000 American lives are shortened every year by the effects of coal pollution.

Other forms of power generation are cleaner, but each has generated its own controversies: photovoltaic cells remain expensive and cannot be used at night; many people consider windmills to be a nuisance, they are known to kill birds, and have a high upfront cost; and hydroelectric dams damage river ecosystems and the most accessible rivers in Japan have already been dammed. With time and innovation, many of these problems might be overcome, but not immediately.

Even if the Japanese government decided to shut off all nuclear power plants tomorrow—which it will not do—there is still the issue of disposing of the waste, an issue that has yet to be dealt with in Japan (just like in the United States). The long-term storage facility at Rokkasho should be ready to open in the next several years but delays have plagued the plant since its conception, and rigorous protests over its siting are ongoing.

The lack of place to store spent fuel rods compounded the problem at Fukushima. In Japan, as in the United States, used fuel rods are stored at the plants in pools that require a steady supply of water to replace that lost to evaporation. The spent fuel pools at Fukushima lost coolant and began to melt, thus releasing even more radioisotopes into the atmosphere.

If there had been a long term storage space available, the loss of coolant to the spent fuel pools would have been a minor problem, rather than a catastrophe that threatened the containment of over 11,000 fuel rods, more fuel than the reactors themselves contained.

The decision to stop building new reactors could create the illusion of safety; the idea that the nuclear problem had been dealt with. Yet, the decision to suspend construction of new plants is meaningless without a full review of the safety of existing plants.

Part of the problem at Fukushima resulted from a lack of planning for a tsunami following an earthquake, with seawalls that were too low and backup generators placed in low-lying areas. These types of problems are likely present in many Japanese nuclear plants, particularly the older ones (like the Fukushima reactors).

The future of the Japanese nuclear power program will hinge on the reaction of the Japanese people. If the reality of the disaster outweighs the benefits of the plants for a large portion of the public, the pace of new construction could stop or further slow. If, however, the benefits are considered to outweigh the risks, Japan may yet continue to be a leader in nuclear power development.

In all likelihood, the Japanese government and utilities will continue selling nuclear power indefinitely. The only question is whether the Japanese people are still going to buy it.