A citizens' organization in Japan that publishes independent analysis in English on nuclear power issues is struggling financially, threatening its ability to remain the major source of specialized public information on Japan's nuclear industry for an international audience.
The Citizens' Nuclear Information Center based in Tokyo has published the free bimonthly English newsletter Nuke Info Tokyo since 1987 but is having to crowdfund to keep publishing amid financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The nonprofit organization, which also produces a monthly newsletter in Japanese for a domestic audience, had previously financed the cost of the English publication by holding paid seminars at which it also solicited donations and sold books, as well as collecting membership fees.
But it has been unable to hold the events since early 2020 when coronavirus infections began to impact Japan, Hajime Matsukubo, CNIC secretary general, told Kyodo News.
Membership -- already in decline -- has also dropped further amid the pandemic and its effect on the economy, he said.
"Membership decreased by about 100 last year alone under the coronavirus outbreaks and (membership) is around 2,100 now," Matsukubo said, admitting the decline in membership also owed to a waning of public interest in nuclear issues in recent years.
"We had more membership right after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, but the public's interest in nuclear power issues faded as time passed," he said. "Members are also aging, and many quit as they retired."
Following the core meltdown triggered by the massive earthquake and tsunami at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, concerns spiked over radiation released from the plant, making the newsletter, which publishes insights from independent experts, and its archived articles a vital source of public information in English.
Philip White, a former editor of Nuke Info Tokyo, wrote that he fielded calls around the clock from the foreign media by referring to the archived English-language articles at the time of the disaster.
"The international media was hungry for critical information to counter the sanitized version offered by the government and the nuclear industry. Our English website offered clearly referenced Nuke Info Tokyo articles," he wrote.
Current editor Caitlin Stronell said although she was not working with CNIC then, she followed the group's press briefings that were streamed daily. Specialists from the group and former nuclear power plant engineers explained the situation in Fukushima.
"I can imagine how important it was this information got out to the world," Stronell said. "Meanwhile, the government was just saying 'there is no immediate threat to health.'"
Matsukubo argues that the government and electric power companies operating nuclear plants tend to withhold information, not just when accidents occur but also in normal times.
Although the government has said the Fukushima plant is under control, it is uncertain how many more years it will take to deal with over a million tons of treated radioactive water from the plant and decommission damaged reactors.
The government continues to deem nuclear power a major energy source, although, since 2014, it has said it aims to decrease its reliance on such power.
The basic energy policy being revised by the government says that nuclear power, which produces no carbon dioxide, should be used together with renewable energy sources to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050.
CNIC's newsletter has covered government policies, the technical and safety aspects of nuclear plants, opposition to nuclear power, and its health implications and economic impacts.
Running the English newsletter, staffed by Stronell, four freelance translators, and an editor who is also co-director of the group, costs around 1.5 million yen ($13,700) per year. While the translators used to work voluntarily, CNIC started to pay them in 2009 -- though they receive half or less than the market rate.
At this time, the newsletter, which had been printed and mailed to readers with a postage fee charged only to readers in Japan, was made available for free online. Several hundred readers regularly refer to the newsletter, among them journalists, NGO staff, and academics.
Another co-director of CNIC, Hideyuki Ban, said that researchers worldwide have quoted Nuke Info Tokyo in their work.
"Nuke Info Tokyo is the only newsletter in English that specializes in the situation of nuclear power in Japan and has covered a wide range of issues from citizens' standpoints for decades," Ban said.
CNIC was founded in 1975 by scientists, including the late Jinzaburo Takagi, a nuclear chemist who began his career in the nuclear industry but later voiced concerns about atomic power.
The first issue of Nuke Info Tokyo was released in 1987 after Takagi attended an international conference in Vienna and was shocked to learn that attendees there knew little about nuclear power issues in Japan.
This year, CNIC mainly received questions from people overseas on treated radioactive water to be released from the Fukushima plant out to sea following a government decision in April.
Ban said the group has conducted lectures on the issue for a South Korean civic group and an anti-nuke organization in the Philippines. Both countries have expressed concerns over the water dumping.
CNIC is also closely watching the discussion of nuclear power policies by the four candidates of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's leadership race scheduled for Wednesday.
One of the candidates, Taro Kono, has said Japan should give up a policy of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, maintaining that plutonium extracted from spent fuel would be of no use, while another candidate, Fumio Kishida, advocates keeping the policy.
Ban said he is paying attention to Kono's comments as putting a halt to reprocessing spent nuclear fuel would, in his opinion, mean a significant step in the right direction.
To coincide with the policy discussion, CNIC held a virtual seminar on Friday to draw attention to the issues and help people make up their minds on the right policy for Japan.
Stronell said she hopes to run an article on the seminar given by experts in the newsletter.
"I think the most important thing is having independent experts' information on nuclear power accidents like Fukushima and other problems to let people make decisions about their own health and future," Stronell said. "And so for us to continue to do this, and that's what the crowdfunding project is about, any support is very much appreciated."