Long before the ghostly images of Fukushima’s nuclear workers in white suits and gas masks appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world, photographer Kenji Higuchi was recording the lives and risks of the industry’s front-line laborers.

The 74-year-old, with longish gray hair, published some of the first images of nuclear workers toiling inside a reactor in 1977. He documented the struggles of radiation victims and, over a half-century, wrote 19 books, including “The Truth About Nuclear Plants” and “Erased Victims.” But in this energy-hungry nation, his no-nukes message did not carry very far. “I was the least popular photographer in Japan,” he said.

Everything changed after the meltdowns in the tsunami-stricken reactors. His schedule filled with invitations for interviews and speaking engagements; his book sales went up; and a 15-year-old British documentary featuring his research on “nuclear gypsies,” subcontractors hired to do the riskiest jobs at plants, is enjoying a revival on YouTube.

“I never imagined I would have so many people interested in helping me,” he said recently.

In the midst of the radiation crisis, in which miles of ocean and farmland have been contaminated and 80,000 people have been evicted from their homes, there lies a seed of hope for the people who warned that this day would come.

Until now, anti-nuclear activists here have counted some local victories, preventing plants from moving in or quashing the use of plutonium-laced nuclear fuel in their neighborhoods. But they say their national influence has been virtually nil.

They describe a block of pro-nuclear scholars, politicians and businessmen who have brought more than 50 reactors online in the past 35 years, making Japan the world’s third- largest producer of nuclear power.

But in the past few weeks, former chiefs of key nuclear safety commissions and government agencies have apologized for overlooking important safety concerns. And aging activists, who got involved in local battles opposing reactors in the 1970s or were inspired after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, are getting re­inforcements.

A wave of younger people are checking daily Geiger-counter readings online and carrying “No Nukes” signs up and down the streets of trendy Tokyo neighborhoods. Two separate protests in the capital on Sunday attracted more than 10,000 people, who called for a moratorium on nuclear power.

“The times are changing,” said Yukio Yamaguchi, co-director of the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center, Japan’s most prominent anti-nuclear organization, at a meeting attended by nearly 300 people, including some who traveled more than 500 miles.

Higuchi is more optimistic that a moratorium on nuclear power production is possible. “The economic giants may still be saying, ‘We will not stop nuclear power,’ but the people, I think, will rise up.”

His inspiration

The son of a poor rice farmer in Nagano, Higuchi came of age in rapidly industrializing post-war Japan. He left the farm at age 22 for Tokyo, where he found a job as a heavy machine operator in a steel plant. At first he was happy. “I will be able to eat for the rest of my life,” he recalled thinking. But the job was dull and the fumes made him dizzy.

A few years later, he was inspired by a documentary photo exhibit and enrolled in a photojournalism program. Since then, he has worked as a freelance writer and photographer, recording how the environment and common laborers suffered during Japan’s economic boom.

In 1973, he photographed the clenched fingers and distorted features of a girl born with Minamata disease, a neurological disorder caused by mercury poisoning. Two years later, he waded into waters inked black from an oil spill in the Seto Inland Sea, and in 1984 captured the mass funeral for 86 coal miners who died in a fire in Kyushu.

Higuchi focused much of his attention on the growing nuclear power industry. He documented the 16-year legal battle of Kazuyuki Iwasa, the first subcontracted nuclear worker to seek compensation for radiation exposure. Doctors diagnosed his radiation burns, but the courts never affirmed that his illness was work-related.

While researching that story, Higuchi captured one of his most defining photographs, taken during his lone visit to a power plant.

The tour at the Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant, where Iwasa had worked, took months to arrange. After his initial requests were denied, he moved into a cheap hotel room near the plant and stood at the front gate every day for a week. When that didn’t work, Higuchi asked the power company if he could photograph their oft-touted security measures. That worked.

He arrived at the plant one day in July 1977 with three cameras and 15 rolls of film. He took pictures of the workers’ safety routines, changing out of street clothes into bright orange coveralls and masks, and stripping down to their underwear at the end of their shifts and putting their hands and feet into machines that test their exposure.

He also took photos of the men doing their jobs, including one that he has published many times since, of three workers emerging from a dark hole near the center of the reactor, wearing heavy boots and gas masks, pushing a dolly.

The images he brought back were revelatory to many who had thought that nuclear workers sat in control rooms.

“I was always told these plants were an assembly line of super-modern machines,” said Hideyuki Ban, the other co-director of Citizen’s Nuclear Information Center. “In reality, pipes leak and workers have to go in and clean up with a rag.”

Higuchi said he wanted to show that the latest nuclear technology still relies on pre-modern labor force: “the sweat and the sacrifice of human beings.”

The photos were published in two prominent Japanese magazines that year.

Renewed interest

Higuchi received awards from anti-nuclear activists at home and abroad. But over time, it became increasingly difficult to sell his photos in Japan. He supplemented his freelance income by managing an apartment building. Occasionally Japanese tabloid magazines would publish his controversial images of sick workers, running them in between pages of lingerie-clad women.

But since the accident on March 11, he said, his work is getting more attention than ever.

When the Fukushima disaster struck, Higuchi did not grab his camera and drive to the plant; he was exposed to radiation during his last visit to an evacuation zone. But he went to a shelter at an arena outside Tokyo and sneaked past a barricade to interview the families. When a security guard caught him and erased all his photos, the elderly man got into a brief pushing match with the guard.

Higuchi said he is still trying to recover the images on his memory card. He wants to share them with the world.

Special correspondent Tetsuya Kato contributed to this report.