The fight for nuclear energy in Japan
02:30 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

Thousands are protesting on Japan's streets against reopening nuclear power plants

Anti-nuclear protests have gained momentum following 2011 tsunami caused by plants

Two reactors were turned on again this month. Japan says it needs power

CNN  — 

The 1960s were a time of social revolution. Student, civil rights activists and anti-war protesters rose up against governments around the world, and Japan was no exception.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to denounce the security treaty Japan signed with the U.S. in 1960. The rallies, which turned violent at times, were the country’s last significant protests – until now.

The recent anti-nuclear protests are gathering momentum, and a society once willing to accept the government line is starting to ask questions of its leaders.

Tens of thousands of people now protest outside the prime minister’s residence every Friday with one simple message – abandon atomic power.

Japan’s grassroots anti-nuclear movement has been growing since last year’s devastating tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Watch victims of Japan’s Fukushima disaster talk about the struggle to rebuild their lives

Yukiko Kamaya lives in the town of Futaba, within the 20 kilometer (12 mile) evacuation zone around the nuclear plant. She remembers the panic of running away from her home when disaster struck, not knowing where was safe and not realizing then that she would not be able to return home.

“It is my home town,” she told CNN. “I want go back home no matter what. I want to return as soon as possible although I know it’s impossible. I hope my dream comes true one day.”

Kamaya, who now lives in temporary housing, says she felt compelled to join anti-nuclear power protests as she doesn’t want anyone else to go through what she has gone through.

This is the seventh protest Nagisa Saito has attended and she’s impressed the numbers are growing.

“What impresses me most is … people never gave up and the crowd is getting bigger and bigger. Even on a bad rainy day like today, we see this many people gathered, it’s amazing.”

Tens of thousands are calling for no nuclear, but what is the alternative?

One man who only gave his name as Ozaki tells CNN, “If there is a power shortage, there are alternatives. What about coal-fired power stations, hydro-electric power stations, or we can just survive with what we have. We have to be patient, but even with blackouts, we can survive without nuclear power.”

While the government can’t help but hear these voices, it has managed to resist them so far. Two nuclear reactors were brought back online this month. All 50 reactors had previously been taken offline for maintenance and tests. The government’s argument is simple: Japan needs power.

Read more: What Japanese leaders can learn from the Fukushima nuclear crisis

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told the public last month: “In order to lead prosperous and decent lives, cheap and stable electricity is indispensable. Japanese society will not be able to function if there is a decision to permanently halt nuclear power generation.”

Masami Hasegawa is a senior manager at Japan Business Federation and agrees that Japan faces an energy crisis heading into the hot summer months. Last year rolling blackouts adversely affected business, he says.

“We hear our members saying that they cannot stay in Japan if this situation continues,” says Hasegawa. “If the current situation continues, energy consuming industries cannot survive in Japan and they will leave. The immediate effect will be on employment which might be lost.”

But protesters say safety is more important, pointing to a recent parliament report which stated the Fukushima disaster was man-made – a result of collusion between the plant operator, regulators and the government.

With tens of thousands of evacuees still waiting to hear when or if they can return to their homes near the plant, protesters say a no-nuclear Japan is the only acceptable result.