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PUBLIC HEARINGS

Did hearings let public send clear nuke signal?

by Natsuko Fukue

Staff Writer

The 11 government-sponsored hearings on what the public thinks the nation’s future energy mix should be in light of the Fukushima nuclear crisis ended earlier this month to mixed reviews.

Many participants appeared doubtful the government truly intended to take their opinions into serious consideration, particularly their apparent majority opposition to using any atomic power.

In so-called public meetings organized in the past by utilities and the government, pronuclear residents were secretly chosen to speak and pitch atomic power, deepening distrust over such hearings in general. The latest events drew similar complaints.

How were the latest hearings organized? Whose voices will be reflected in Japan’s future energy policy?

Following are some questions and answers on the hearings:

What was the purpose of the hearings?

The hearings held in 11 cities, including those where utilities are headquartered, were ostensibly an effort to solicit public opinion for crafting a new midterm energy policy following the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture.

Technically speaking, the government is not obliged to heed any of the opinions expressed at the hearings, but the events were also a political gesture aimed at forming a national consensus before compiling new energy goals.

The host cities included Saitama, Sendai, Nagoya, Sapporo, Osaka, Toyama, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Fukushima, and Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture, and Naha in Okinawa.

What was the key topic and the majority opinion of those who sought to speak out?

The government in June presented three nuclear energy mix goals for 2030: zero percent dependence, 15 percent dependence or between 20 and 25 percent dependence.

The 1,447 people who applied to speak at the hearings were asked which option they would support, and 70 percent of them said they preferred the zero-nuclear option. Only a few of them got to speak, however.

How were the speakers chosen?

In the beginning, each hearing chose, via lottery, 12 speakers based on their support for one of the options. Thus four spoke on behalf of each energy goal.

But at the Fukushima hearing, the government increased the number of speakers to 30 because it felt the venue was “the most important.” This time, the government chose the speakers randomly, regardless of which option they preferred, and limited the speakers only to Fukushima residents or those who evacuated the prefecture to avoid the radioactive fallout.

Did the hearings draw any criticism?

Yes. Some of the “citizens” chosen to speak were power company employees whose views were as predictable as the outrage their selection triggered.

In Sendai, one of nine speakers was an employee of Tohoku Electric Power Co. After identifying himself as such, he said that reducing nuclear dependence to the 20 to 25 percent target is “the closest option to my company’s idea.”

In response to allegations that two of the speakers who were power company employees were preselected by the government, national policy minister Motohisa Furukawa said after the third hearing in July (in Nagoya) that people connected with utilities would no longer be picked as speakers to avoid the “misunderstanding” that the state was intentionally trying to again promote nuclear power.

What other ways has the government used to solicit public opinion on energy policy?

The National Policy Unit asked the public to send in opinions on energy policy by mail, fax and via its website between July 2 and Sunday.

The government also held “deliberative polling” sessions on Aug. 4 and 5 to which it invited nearly 300 citizens to Tokyo to participate.

Under this system, developed by Stanford University, they were divided into groups of 15 and given 90 minutes to come up with one question each.

The groups then asked their questions, which covered nuclear power plant safety and the effectiveness of renewable energy, to four experts. The results will be released later this month.

What happens next?

The government plans to present a new energy regime sometime after this month. It originally wanted to do so by the end of August but decided to delay the plan amid criticism it was acting in haste.

Although the majority of the opinions expressed at the public hearings favored the zero percent option, the government is reportedly leaning toward the 15 percent option because that can be achieved simply by decommissioning reactors that are 40 years old or older — like those at Fukushima No. 1.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp