TOKYO (Reuters) – Thousands of anti-nuclear protesters marched in Japan on Saturday, three months after an earthquake and tsunami triggered the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years, urging the government to cut reliance on atomic power.
Three reactors went into meltdown after the earthquake hit the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeastern Japan, forcing 80,000 residents to evacuate from its vicinity as engineers battled radiation leaks, hydrogen explosions and overheating fuel rods.
Company workers, students and parents with children on their shoulders rallied across Japan, venting their anger at the government's handling of the crisis, carrying flags bearing the words "No Nukes!" and "No More Fukushima."
"If they don't get the message now, what else has to happen before we stop using atomic energy which has proved so dangerous?" said kindergarten worker Yu Matsuda, 28.
She brought her children, aged 2 and 4, to protest at the headquarters of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco).
"I want my children to play outside safely and swim in our sea without any worries," Matsuda said, listening to speeches by civil rights activists and people from tsunami-affected areas.
The protests are likely to add to public pressure that caused a shutdown of the Hamaoka nuclear plant in May and delays to the restart of reactors across the country after scheduled maintenance until tighter safety measures are put in place.
In France, where nuclear plants produce 75 percent of energy output, police said 1,150 people joined a protest in Paris. The anti-nuclear campaigners who organized the rally said 5,000 took part.
Japan is running 19 of 54 reactors in operation before the Fukushima disaster, raising the risk of serious power shortages into 2012. Many experts say economic risks are too high for Japan to pull the plug on all its reactors.
Analysts say industry is facing more power rationing and the need for energy imports levies a high price on the world's third-largest economy. Japan lacks the electricity generation capacity to substitute for the nuclear fleet.
"The nuclear lobby says the cost of green energy is too high. But I say the cost of cleaning up this mess and the possibility of more such accidents at the expense of our lives is much higher," said entrepreneur Yonosuke Sawada, 59.
Protesters, shouting "Tepco liars!" and "Give us our friends back!" also criticized the government for its handling of the disaster, which left more than 23,000 dead or presumed dead and laid waste to a swathe of the northeast.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who on Saturday visited quake-affected areas, last week survived a no-confidence vote by saying he would step down when the worst of the crisis was over.
That fueled uncertainty about the smoothness and speed of recovery as there is still no agreement on how to pay for Japan's biggest reconstruction project since the years after World War Two.
"It's not a matter of what political party you support. Fukushima is still emitting radiation and politicians should concentrate on ending the crisis -- not infighting," said company worker Jun Miyakawa, 43, sporting a hat in the shape of an exploded reactor.
Japan's anti-nuclear movement, small and ignored by the public until the Fukushima crisis, has become more vocal, gathering increasing numbers of people to demonstrations.
But the number of protesters in Japan, a conservative society that values cooperation over outcries of public anger, are much smaller than in Germany, where as many as 200,000 pressed the government to overhaul its nuclear policies.
Voters have generally supported the role of nuclear energy and even after the accident remained divided over whether all of the nuclear power plants should be closed, polls showed.
"People in Japan do have opinions, but are not used to expressing them in public like the Germans," said Reo Komazawa, 39. "I came here with my friends to play music and to show through music we are anti-nuke," he said as a colorful group of musicians and dancers marched in the crowd.
(Additional reporting by Lucien Libert and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris; Editing by Alex Richardson and Janet Lawrence)