JAPAN | ‘Credibility shot to pieces’ / Latest utility scandal also sullies govt nuclear safety agency

Posted on July 30, 2011

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JAPAN | YOMIURI SHIMBUN | 30 July 2011

An attempt by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to stifle public opposition to a plutonium-thermal power generation project at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant during a 2007 community symposium is the latest scandal to involve a nuclear power project.

This most recent scandal was revealed during a press conference on Friday by Chubu Electric Power Co., operator of the Hamaoka plant.

It comes hot on the heels of the e-mail scandal surrounding Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s attempts to resume operations at its Genkai nuclear plant.

But unlike the Kyushu Electric case, the Chubu Electric scandal features the direct involvement of the nuclear safety agency, the government body responsible for overseeing nuclear power plant operations. This cannot be seen as anything but an attempt to distort public opinion.

Residents near the plant and experts have reacted to the news with criticism, with one observer saying, “The credibility of nuclear energy administrators is shot to pieces.”

Yoshinori Moriyama, deputy director general for nuclear accident measures and a spokesman for the agency, appeared at a regular press conference at the safety agency’s offices in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo, shortly after 11 a.m. on Friday. Struggling under a barrage of pointed questions, Moriyama offered only weak explanations.

“The details of the report haven’t been confirmed, so we can’t comment on it,” he said, referring to a report by Chubu Electric Power Co. about its internal investigation into the case that was submitted to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry on Friday.

The symposium at the center of the scandal was organized by the central government and held in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Aug. 26, 2007. A total of 524 residents of the prefecture attended.

Moriyama was present, acting as government spokesman. At the time, he was director of the safety agency’s nuclear power licensing division. During the event, he said of the pluthermal project, “We’ll expend all possible effort to ensure safety.”

At Friday’s press conference, Moriyama said: “I remember that participants [at the symposium] asked me tough questions about quake resistance, because the event was held right after the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake. But I don’t have the slightest recollection [about instructing some attendees to ask particular questions].”

Asked about the government’s response to the revelations, Moriyama said: “Of course, these things shouldn’t happen. First of all, we’ll check the details of the report, including whether instructions were actually given to people attending the symposium. After gaining such information, we’ll respond to the issue.”

Also on Friday, Chubu Electric held a press conference at its headquarters in Higashi Ward, Nagoya.

Shuichi Terada, chief of the utility’s legal department, read aloud the report submitted to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry. He then said: “Despite requests by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to do so, we did not ask [symposium participants] to express specific opinions [in support of the project]. We can be confident in saying that.”

Terada also claimed an executive of the utility had asked about 10 residents “to express opinions, including opinions opposing [the pluthermal project]” at the symposium as the firm wanted local residents’ voices to be heard.

According to Chubu Electric, all 12 people who spoke at the symposium were either wary of or indifferent to the project, and nobody at the symposium spoke in favor of the project.

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Anger, confusion among locals

The revelation that the government attempted to manipulate a public symposium on a pluthermal power-generation project in 2007 has confused and angered people living near nuclear power plants.

Minoru Ito, who lives in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, near Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka nuclear power plant, said he attended the symposium in question, which was held in Omaezaki.

“As I was known to be an opponent [of the project], the moderator didn’t take my question even though I raised my hand,” the 70-year-old said. “Such things often happen at meetings organized by the government or Chubu Electric. So this [latest news] doesn’t surprise me.”

Masatomo Fukuda, 56, president of the Omaezaki Grand Hotel, located about 10 kilometers from the Hamaoka plant, was furious at the news.

“All I can say is, don’t jerk us around,” he said. “I was relieved to hear that Chubu Electric rejected the idea, but I can’t believe the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which is running the whole thing, tried to manipulate us. Nonsense like that shouldn’t happen.”

Kazuya Idemitsu, a professor at Kyushu University’s graduate school who attended the symposium as a panelist, was bewildered.

“Some people in the crowd expressed their opposition to the project–I didn’t get the impression that [the symposium] was biased. I also never received any particular requests from Chubu Electric,” he said. “The symposium was meant to give people a chance to exchange views freely. Requests from the nuclear safety agency would’ve made the event meaningless.”

In June 2006, a similar symposium on pluthermal power generation was held in Ehime Prefecture. Of the 15 people who spoke at the symposium, 10 were asked to do so by Shikoku Electric Power Co., it has been found.

Doubt has been cast on the integrity of a survey of symposium participants that found 439 people, or more than half the respondents, said they “understood” or “mostly understood” the need for and safety of pluthermal power-generation.

A 59-year-old man who works at a company with ties to Shikoku Electric said he attended the symposium at the request of Shikoku Electric, but was confused by the uproar over the revelations.

“I was merely encouraged to attend by Shikoku Electric employees. I didn’t speak up at the venue. They didn’t ask me to do that,” he said.

A Shikoku Electric employee who admitted asking workers at other companies to attend the symposium was also unapologetic. “I thought the other side [those who opposed the project] was doing similar stuff. Even now, I don’t see why it’s a problem that we encouraged people to participate [in the symposium],” the utility employee said.

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