USA | UPDATE: Japan’s Nuclear Regulator Admits It Tried To Sway Public Opinion On Nuclear Plants

Posted on July 29, 2011

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USA | WALL STREET JOURNAL | 29 July 2011

— Japan’s nuclear regulator behind efforts to falsely suggest public support for nuclear power

— At least two utilities say they were asked to take part in secret efforts

— Admission comes as government releases energy strategy that reduces dependence on nuclear power

— PM Kan says that scandal brings into question the agency’s very existence

TOKYO (Dow Jones)–The Japanese government disclosed Friday that its primary nuclear regulator tried to manipulate public opinion at public forums around the country to promote nuclear power, findings that further damage the industry’s already tattered reputation.

The announcement came as Prime Minister Naoto Kan released an energy strategy framework that seeks to reduce the dependence on nuclear power following the country’s worst-ever nuclear accident at the quake-hit Fukushima Daiichi plant in northern Japan.

“The scandal, if true, is a grave problem that questions the very existence of the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency,” Kan said at a press conference on the energy strategy.

Earlier Friday, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda released results of a survey of the seven utilities that had public forums on nuclear issues over the past five years.

It found one utility, Chubu Electric Power Co. (9502.TO) in central Japan, said it had been asked by NISA to bring people to a public symposium in 2007 and to give them supportive questions they could ask. Chubu Electric said it encouraged its people to attend but did not supply questions because it considered it inappropriate.

While no other utilities made similar reports in their filings, the request was not an isolated incident.

Shikoku Electric Power Co. (9507.TO) said it sent a memo in 2006 asking its employees and those at related firms to give pro-nuclear views at a public event. A utility spokesman confirmed that it had acted at the request of the government, but did not say so in the official filing.

“There was a request from the government,” said Satoshi Nishiyama, the nuclear power team manager of Shikoku Electric’s Tokyo bureau. “It was verbal,” he said at a press conference.

Chugoku Electric Power Co. (9504.TO) and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501.TO), operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, each said they had asked employees to attend events but did not ask them to express any specific opinion or claim to represent the general public.

Kaieda said that he would set up an independent committee to look into the situation.

“As head of METI, I feel very sorry if there has been manipulation by the government for a certain opinion to be expressed,” Kaieda said.

Kaieda has faced increasing pressure as he has tried to navigate between growing hostility over the use of nuclear power and the need to avoid crippling power shortages.

At one point in parliament, he was visibly upset, with tears in his eyes, when an opposition lawmaker said he should resign.

NISA has been attacked by industry critics ever since details of the March 11 Fukushima began to emerge for having been too lax and too close to nuclear plant operators.

Nobuaki Terasaka, head of NISA, called it a “serious issue” for the agency, and said that if proven true, he wanted to apologize to those involved.

The government said in June that it would separate NISA from the ministry and look to give more powers to the Nuclear Safety Commission, an outside panel of experts.

“NISA is not an entity to objectively regulate and check the nuclear power industry but an entity to promote it. When you hear that NISA has done this, nothing really should surprise you,” said Hidekatsu Yoshii, a Communist Party member of parliament who has been a frequent critic.

The issue first emerged in early July when Kyushu Electric Power Co. (9508.TO) in southern Japan said that a senior executive had mobilized as many as 141 people to send in positive comments to a June 26 public hearing on whether to restart two reactors at the utility’s plant in Genkai, Saga Prefecture.

A Kyushu Electric spokesman said it was investigating statements from some employees that government officials might have been involved in the effort.

Public concerns over the safety of nuclear power and distrust over the level of regulatory supervision have prompted the government to review its national energy strategy.

Kan’s government announced that it would now look at ways to reduce, although not eliminate, nuclear power, which before the Fukushima accident accounted for just under 30% of total output.

The plan ensures that nuclear power plants will be reactivated once safety has been confirmed, largely to quell fears about a prolonged energy shortage brought on by the ongoing shutdown of plants for regular annual maintenance.

Kan highlighted the longer-term goal of progressively reducing the reliance on nuclear power although his national strategy minister Koichiro Genba said Friday that more discussion was needed.

“Whether Japan should eliminate all nuclear power usage should be a public discussion,” Genba said.


-By Kosaku Narioka and Toko Sekiguchi, Dow Jones Newswires; +81-3-6269-2784; kosaku.narioka@dowjones.com

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