|Besides the danger of nuclear meltdowns, how to safely dispose of or store nuclear waste is yet another risk to human health - and the environment - that has not been resolved [GALLO/GETTY]
Tokyo, Japan - Japan plans to boost civilian nuclear exports, even as it tries to appease its population angered at radiation leaks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, crippled by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
"The reason why Japan is taking these dangerous steps [exports] is to gain business opportunities and diplomatic clout with developing countries," explained Yuki Tanabe, an expert at the Japan Centre for a Sustainable Environment and Society (JACSES).
In December 2011, bills to allow export of nuclear plants to Vietnam and Jordan, as part of bilateral co-operation, were approved by the foreign affairs committee of Japan's House of Representatives.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has justified the deals saying these countries "badly want Japan's high-level technology". But Noda also said that Japan must help "enhance the safety of nuclear power plants in those countries".
Agreements are pending with several other countries, including India, Bangladesh and Turkey, covering the construction of power plants, their operation and management by Japanese companies.
But environment activists in Japan and the recipient countries have joined hands against these projects in a campaign that has gained momentum as a result of radiation leakage at Fukushima.
Apart from the huge health risks posed by radioactive contamination, activists are pointing to the exorbitant costs of nuclear power that have been all too evident in Japan over the past few months.
Lack of popular support
Radiation contamination following the meltdown at Fukushima has forced more than 150,000 people living in the vicinity to flee.
Additionally, tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land have been declared dangerous for food production. Tests conducted this month in the surrounding sea have indicated contamination of marine resources, making them inedible.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima reactor, is now faced with compensation payments worth more than US $60bn, forcing it to request public funding.
Such difficult issues were highlighted at an anti-nuclear conference organised January 14-15 in Yokohama by Japanese and international grassroots organisations lobbying for a nuclear-free world.
Speakers from countries such as South Korea, Canada and members of the European Union presented cases that illustrated strong domestic opinion against nuclear power.
Praful Bidwai, an internationally renowned Indian campaigner for safe and renewable energy, explained to a packed audience the importance of regular protests and demonstrations by local people who live close to nuclear power plants.
Currently, three per cent of India's energy needs are met by nuclear plants, but plans are afoot to increase this to 20 per cent by 2020 to support economic growth and meet power demand.
India, Bidwai said, has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and has a poor nuclear safety record with several accidents, fires, explosions and radioactive water spills that have exposed workers and the public to radiation.
"Nuclear power countries see Mongolia with its lax laws as a dumping site. We will fight against such moves."
- Selnge Lkhagvajav, member of Mongolian Green Party
In October 2011, Noda and Indian foreign minister Somanahalli Krishna agreed to resume talks on how to create conditions for a Japanese-Indian partnership in promoting peaceful atomic energy.
Dangers and disposal
Officials and business proponents of nuclear technology say that Japan's nuclear exports would continue, and point to competition from South Korea.
But Kim Heyung of the South Korean Environment Movement against Nuclear Power, explained at Yokohama that the Fukushima accident has raised awareness among the public about the dangers of nuclear power.
Indeed, a poll conducted in October showed that 68 per cent of South Koreans opposed the building of new reactors, signalling a lack of public support for six new nuclear power sites proposed by the government.
South Korea also signed a new nuclear export pact with United Arab Emirates last year, and is competing in Finland with Japan to win orders.
Mongolia, a uranium rich country, has also become a focal point in the anti-nuclear debate, following news reports in May 2011 that Japan and the United States were planning to construct a spent fuel disposal facility in the country.
Selnge Lkhagvajav, a member of the Mongolian Green Party that has successfully worked against nuclear power, told the meeting in Yokohama that her country has neither the experts nor technology to accept nuclear power or waste.
"Nuclear power countries see Mongolia with its lax laws as a dumping site. We will fight against such moves," she said.
Japan, which depends on nuclear power for 30 per cent of its energy, has been promising to implement stringent measures to raise the protection bar against Fukushima-type accidents. But Tanabe from JACSES dismisses such measures as futile.
Meanwhile, ongoing stress tests ordered on nuclear facilities have drastically reduced Japan's nuclear energy output - and activists see in this an opportunity for the country to look for safer energy sources.
A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.