” KUMATORI, Osaka Prefecture–Tetsuji Imanaka is the last of the so-called Kumatori Group of Six, a maverick band of nuclear scientists at an elite university here that spent decades speaking out against nuclear energy.
At 65, Imanaka is now ready to collect his pension and part company with Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute–and he remains as steadfast as ever in his beliefs.
Imanaka cannot have found it easy to go against the government’s policy of promoting nuclear power, yet that’s what he’s done since he joined the institute in 1976.
He says he never experienced harassment, but then again he never got promoted beyond the post of research associate.
“Many people have commented that I must have been bullied because I banded together with my colleagues under the banner of building a nuclear-free Japan,” Imanaka told a 60-strong audience gathered here Jan. 28 for a lecture to mark his retirement in March. “But that was not the case. It is also true, though, that nobody has praised me for being anti-nuclear,” he added, drawing guffaws.
Imanaka’s other colleagues in the group with the exception of one are all retired. They are: Toru Ebisawa, 77; Keiji Kobayashi, 76; Takeshi Seo, who died in 1994 at the age of 53; Shinji Kawano, 74; and Hiroaki Koide, 66.
The group’s moniker came from the name of the town that hosts the research center.
Although all six scientists harbored doubts about promoting nuclear energy, Imanaka said, “We did not set out to become activists or form a clique.”
Rather, “We acted according to our own beliefs as individuals.”
The group was relatively unknown before the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
But in the aftermath of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the “rebels” increasingly came under the spotlight as civic groups scrambled to seek their expertise to grasp the ramifications of the nuclear accident and the potential dangers of nuclear energy.
Koide, who retired last year, has addressed 300 or so gatherings across the country since the catastrophe.
But the group’s efforts to educate the public about the potential danger of, and challenges facing nuclear energy, date back to 1980 when it initiated a series of seminars at the institute.
“Experts have a responsibility to explain science and technology in lay language to citizens,” Imanaka said of the endeavor.
With Imanaka’s departure, those seminars are about to end. After more than 35 years, the final 112nd session will be held on Feb. 10.
The group’s commitment to continue sounding the warning against nuclear power has been widely appreciated by the public at large.
But the members have all had to pay a price for openly defying the “nuclear village,” as the program involving the government, powerful utilities enjoying regional monopolies and academia is called.
None of the six ever got promoted to beyond the level of assistant professor.
Still, Koide, who finished his career also as a research associate, recalled his academic life fondly.
In his lowly position, he was able to focus on his research free from pressure and harassment.
The catalyst for the group’s anti-nuclear activities was a lawsuit filed in 1973 by a citizens group over a license issued to Shikoku Electric Power Co. to build the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture.
In the suit, the plaintiffs demanded nullification of the license on grounds that safety screening of the plant by the government was insufficient. It was the nation’s first lawsuit involving the safety of a nuclear reactor.
The researchers stood by the plaintiffs over 19 years of court battles, offering their technical expertise and testimony, right up until the Supreme Court finalized the verdict against them.
Kobayashi, an expert on reactors, also helped residents who sought to shut down the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.
The money-guzzling, problem-plagued project is the centerpiece of the government’s vision to recycle spent nuclear fuel. But the reactor has rarely operated since it went online in 1995.
Imanaka specialized in assessing the spread of radioactive contamination. He traveled to Ukraine more than 20 times to examine the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident site for contamination.
He, along with Seo, also estimated how much radiation was released in the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the United States.
After the Fukushima disaster, Imanaka embarked on a project to detect radiation levels in Iitate, a village to the northwest of the plant whose residents are still living as evacuees due to high radiation levels.
Keiji Miyazaki, professor emeritus of nuclear energy at Osaka University, was of two minds about the goals of the Kumatori Group of Six.
“We, as a promoter of nuclear power, could learn from the argument they made on scientific grounds,” said Miyazaki, 78, who assisted in the development of the Monju fast-breeder reactor. “But at times, they rather seemed to be activists than researchers.”
The Fukushima disaster showed that a nuclear accident far exceeding anyone’s expectations can happen in Japan, which is what the Kumatori Group of Six had been saying all along, despite the pro-nuclear power bloc always ruling it out as improbable.
Still, Koide said he was left with a “sense of defeat” because he and his peers failed to prevent it after all.
Five years on, the toll from the disaster continues.
Some 100,000 evacuees in Fukushima Prefecture are still displaced.
Kobayashi is pushing for a nationwide debate over whether Japan should embrace nuclear energy.
“It has been established that an accident can take place,” he said. “All of society, not just some officials and experts, should discuss whether we should continue to accept the risks involved in nuclear energy.”
The final session of the seminar will bring together Imanaka and the surviving members of the group together for the first time in a long while.
They will pose for a picture with the photo of the late Seo in the background and renew their resolve to carry on their mission to serve the public with their technical knowledge.
“The next seminar will be the last one at the institute, but we are ready to come together and fulfill our responsibility as nuclear scientists if an accident like Fukushima recurs,” Imanaka said. ”