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People's views & decision-making

January 6, 2015
EDITORIAL: Consensus-building process needed for nuclear policy decisions

Nearly four years have passed since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Signs are that 2015 will be remembered as the year when Japan restarted nuclear power generation.

The No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, which have passed the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s safety screenings in line with stricter regulations, are expected to resume operation as early as this spring. The nuclear safety watchdog has also given the green light to a plan to restart the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture.

Applications for the NRA’s safety reviews have also been submitted for 17 other reactors at 12 nuclear power stations. These reactors are waiting in the wings for the NRA’s approval.


To bring an offline reactor on stream again, the operator also needs to win the consent of the prefecture and municipalities where the reactor is located.

In the case of the Sendai plant, the local assemblies of Kagoshima Prefecture and the city of Satsuma-sendai voted last autumn to support the plan to restart the reactors. The Kagoshima governor and the mayor of the city have also decided to approve it. The will of the local communities concerned has been made clear according to formal procedures.

But the will of the nation as a whole concerning the issue is different.

In a survey The Asahi Shimbun conducted in November, 56 percent of the respondents expressed opposition to restarting reactors, against 28 percent who supported the move. We have been asking similar questions since our survey in June 2013, and all the polls showed that a majority of the people were cautious about the idea of bringing reactors back online.

The opinions of the local governments concerned represent the popular will, as do the results of opinion polls.

If the will of the people concerning other reactor restarts is represented in the same way as in the case of the Sendai plant, the desire of many Japanese to see an end to nuclear power generation in this nation could be ignored as the NRA accelerates its safety screenings of the reactors. Is that acceptable?

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, public opinion has remained sharply divided over various related issues, such as evacuation plans, damage caused by radiation and hikes in electricity rates.

The situation requires the government to rethink the way it makes nuclear policy decisions.

The nation clearly needs a system to integrate widely different popular views about nuclear power generation into policies.

In many Western nations, systems are designed to allow citizens to take part in policy debate to refine and visualize public opinion.


Denmark was a pioneer in this area by creating a system to incorporate public opinions into the policymaking process through “consensus conferences.”

Since the late 1980s, the system has been actively used to make decisions on key science and technology policy issues, such as the application of genetic engineering.

Under this system, a dozen or so citizens are chosen from among those who have responded to the government’s invitations to participate in debate on a certain issue. They spend several days asking experts related questions and studying and discussing the issue as a panel. Then, working on their own, the citizens prepare and publish a written opinion about the issue.

Lawmakers and media are invited to be present when the citizens publish the document.

Similar systems have been used in various ways by countries and areas. They are all designed as “dialogue-oriented” plans to build consensus among the public while respecting different opinions.

In summer 2012, the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan attempted to adopt a similar approach when it initiated “national debate” on nuclear power policy decisions.

In addition to introducing a public comment system and holding public hearings in various parts of the nation, the DPJ-led government conducted what is known as a "deliberative opinion poll" for the first time in Japan.

About 300 citizens, selected randomly from the nearly 7,000 people who had responded to a survey, engaged in a discussion meeting that ran two days with an overnight stay. A total of three surveys, including the ones conducted before and after the meeting, were held to find out changes in their opinions.

The participants were chosen at random to ensure that the sample would represent the entire population demographically and vocationally. It was an attempt to create a more thought-out public opinion regarding nuclear power through in-depth discussions.

As a result of this process, the government concluded that many Japanese wanted to see their society abandon nuclear power generation.

Some problems arose with the survey method and the way the government made its policy decisions accordingly. But it was nevertheless a welcome attempt to accurately grasp the will of the people. Such an approach should be used more for debate on nuclear power policy issues.


The division of public opinion over nuclear energy is not limited to the one between the will of the nation as a whole versus the will of local governments concerned.

Since the Fukushima disaster, there have been disagreements among local governments over the scope of “local communities” that should be involved in the decision-making process on such issues as whether to approve construction of a nuclear power plant and a restart of an offline reactor.

In April last year, Hakodate, Hokkaido, sued the state and Electric Power Development Co., or J-Power, to halt construction of the Oma nuclear power plant in Oma, Aomori Prefecture, which is located across the Tsugaru Strait.

Hakodate is located within 30 kilometers of the plant, and its citizens would be exposed to serious threats to their health if a severe accident were to occur there.

Hakodate’s legal action is based on the notion that its vicinity to the nuclear plant should qualify it for involvement in decisions on whether to approve construction.

A heap of issues related to nuclear power generation should be settled through broad consensus and agreement. They include the program to provide state subsidies to local governments hosting nuclear plants, storage of spent nuclear fuel and disposal of radioactive waste.

Public opinion will be divided in various ways over all these issues. If there is no effective system to build consensus on such contentious issues by overcoming wide disagreements, the government will have to repeat the futile choice of either forcibly executing or postponing its decisions.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to revive nuclear power generation in this nation.

But the government’s new basic energy supply plan, which the Abe Cabinet endorsed in April last year, contains the following passage: “The government will consider attempts to allow diverse parties to engage in discussions on various energy-related challenges and study together to deepen their understanding for the sake of progress in policy efforts.”

The government plans to hold policy debate on the future share of nuclear power in Japan’s overall power supply with an eye to making the decision by summer.

If the government is concerned that the traditional approach to policymaking may not work with this challenge, it should change the way it makes decisions now.

What is the best way to measure people’s views and opinions and integrate them into the decision-making process? The issue of nuclear power generation raises this fundamental question about the way policy decisions are made.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 6

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