JAPAN | Nuclear safety agency’s reputation on rocks / Industry regulator faces credibility crisis after cozy ties with electric utility firms exposed

Posted on July 31, 2011

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JAPAN | YOMIURI SHIMBUN | 31 July 2011

Revelations of attempts to misrepresent public opinion raise fundamental questions about the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s reason for existing.

The agency, which operates under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry and is in charge of overseeing the safety of nuclear power plants, attempted to distort public opinion to project support for nuclear power at government-sponsored symposiums.

The latest scandal comes after another involving Kyushu Electric Power Co., in which the utility asked its own employees and staff of subsidiaries to send e-mails expressing support for the restart of reactors at its Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture.

The incidents shed light on the cozy relationships between those who produce nuclear power for commercial gain and those who are supposed to regulate it. The incidents have inevitably damaged public trust in the nuclear power industry.

They also raise questions about why, if it does not fulfill its function as regulator, the safety agency should exist at all. Decisions over whether currently idled nuclear reactors should be reactivated are sure to be influenced by the scandals.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda said: “The situation is extremely serious. The government will investigate the matter thoroughly.”

Kaieda promised the government would respond forcefully.

The government-organized symposium at the center of the allegations against the safety agency was held in August 2007 in Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture.

It was held to discuss a proposed pluthermal project at Chubu Electric Power Co.’s Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Omaezaki.

A report submitted Friday by Chubu Electric to the Natural Resources and Energy Agency details the safety agency’s attempts to manipulate public opinion.

“To prevent the meeting from being dominated by questions from people opposing the pluthermal project, we [utility staff] were verbally requested to prepare questions, and to ask local residents to raise questions,” the report said.

Chubu Electric was also asked by the safety agency to round up extra people to fill vacant seats at the symposium, according to the report.

Via e-mail and oral requests, the utility asked employees to attend the event, and officials visited affiliate companies to ask their staff to attend.

The company also wrote draft questions for staff to ask at the symposium. However, Shuichi Terada, chief of Chubu Electric’s legal department, said the firm decided against asking people to voice particular opinions–as the safety agency had asked it to–because it “would be problematic from a viewpoint of compliance.”

Terada said that in the end, not even any of the draft questions were actually raised at the symposium.

The safety agency was involved in similar activities in relation to a symposium held in June 2006 in Ikatacho, Ehime Prefecture.

According to Shikoku Electric Power Co., an agency official in charge of the event made an oral request to the utility, asking it to “make a priority of creating active discussion.”

The company asked its employees to attend the event, and gave them notes about questions to ask and opinions to express.

Yoshinori Moriyama, the agency’s deputy director general for nuclear disaster response, said at a press conference Friday: “I don’t know all the facts. I’m really surprised [by the news].”

His remark indicates the degree of confusion within the agency.

Nobuaki Terasaka, the agency’s director general, said at a separate press conference held later Friday, “It’s a serious problem and I’m very sorry.”

It was Terasaka’s first press conference since March 12, the day after the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant began.

The goal of the symposiums in question was to convince local residents that pluthermal power-generation–a core element of the nation’s nuclear power policy–is necessary and safe, and the motive behind the attempts to distort public opinion was to gain public acceptance for the technology.

At the time the symposiums were held, a pluthermal project by Tokyo Electric Power Co. and Kansai Electric Power Co. had been stalled because of a scandal involving data falsification. Japan’s stocks of plutonium extracted from reprocessed nuclear fuel had reached excessive levels, attracting criticism from the international community.

The sense of urgency within the nuclear industry over this situation led to the attempts to twist public opinion, industry sources said.

The economy ministry, faced with the challenge of coping with possible electricity shortages, has been keen to promptly resume operations at idled nuclear reactors once stress tests are complete. These plans have been dealt a heavy blow by the scandalous revelations.

Public trust in nuclear power has collapsed, adding to the already considerable confusion over if and when the reactors will be reactivated.
Satoshi Yamada, Tatsuo Nakajima and Koichi Yasuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

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