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Is government being fair?

July 18, 2012


Editorial: Gov't should be fair in listening to public opinion on nuclear power



The government's decision to ban employees at electric power companies from expressing themselves during hearings of opinions from members of the general public on Japan's energy policy should be regarded as only natural.

Such hearings are important opportunities to reflect public opinion on Japan's key policies, and not venues to listen to interested parties' assertions.

One cannot help but wonder why electric power industry insiders were initially allowed to attend public hearings on atomic power policy. As long as members of the public doubt whether the government is serious about listening to their opinions, the government cannot ensure fairness of its policy-making process.

Hearings are being held on three scenarios of Japan's reliance on nuclear power as of 2030: scenario 1 under which nuclear plants would be totally shutdown; scenario 2 under which the ratio of atomic power to Japan's total power supply would be 15 percent; and scenario 3 under which the ratio would be 20-25 percent. Specifically, three members of the public who support scenario 1, three others who back scenario 2 and another three who are in favor of scenario 3 are invited to each hearing to express their opinions. The government has introduced such hearings along with deliberative polls -- which consist of public comments, debate and surveys -- as a means to reflect public opinion in its policy-making.

The government plans to hold 11 such sessions across the country. Three sessions have already been held, and the planning manager of Tohoku Electric Power Co. and a section chief at Chubu Electric Power Co.'s nuclear power department expressed their opinions in favor of atomic power at the Sendai and Nagoya sessions, respectively.

The number of speakers is limited to nine at each hearing. If one of the nine is a high-ranking official of a power supplier that is promoting nuclear power, it obviously runs counter to the hearings' purpose of listening to opinions from members of the general public, and raises serious questions about the fairness of such sessions.

Questions also remain about the way such hearings are being held. Speakers express their own opinions, but nobody asks questions and no discussion is held. Since opinions expressed by speakers are not summarized by the organizer, how can they be reflected in the government's energy policy?

According to an advertising agency that serves as the secretariat of the hearings, of those who have applied to express their opinions at the Nagoya hearing, nearly 70 percent support a total elimination of nuclear plants, while over 20 percent back the 20-25 percent scenario. In Sendai, about 70 percent of applicants are in favor of the abolition of all nuclear power stations. Judging from these figures, the government's decision to allow three people each in favor of the three scenarios to express their opinions at the hearings is highly questionable.

Moreover, three people living in the Tokyo metropolitan area were selected as speakers at the Sendai hearing and underscored the need of nuclear power. In Nagoya, four of the nine speakers were from the Kansai or Kanto regions.

Such hearings have been organized across the country on the assumption that public opinion on nuclear power varies from region to region depending on the local situation, such as whether they host nuclear power stations. Therefore, such hearings should be held in a way local communities' opinions are reflected in energy policy.

Biased opinions were expressed in some past symposia and other sessions on nuclear power policy organized by the government in a bid to manipulate public opinion, inviting public distrust. There are observations that the government is reportedly seeking to settle the issue, with an eye to adopting the 15 percent option. Behind the widespread anti-nuclear power campaigns is strong public distrust of the government's stance.

Hearings on energy policy will continue, and the government is also poised to conduct a deliberative poll on the issue. The government should make every effort to ensure fairness in the way it listens to opinions from the public on nuclear power policy in order not to invite public distrust.

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