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Saturday, July 21, 2012

NPOs hold alternative gatherings after utility shills get voice in state-run 'public hearings'


Staff writer

As criticism mounts over the way the government is allegedly manipulating public hearings to "seek a national consensus" on the nation's future energy mix, nonprofit orgnizations and citizen groups seeking an end to dependence on nuclear power are holding their own, alternative gatherings.

About 200 people participated in one such event Thursday in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, organized by e-shift, a coalition of NPOs opposed to nuclear power.

During the two-hour gathering, the participants not only expressed their opinions on energy policy but spent more than an hour grilling a senior official from the National Policy Unit, the secretariat of the government-sponsored hearings, who was invited to explain the three officially decided scenarios for nuclear energy dependence by 2030 — zero percent, 15 percent, or 20 to 25 percent.

Questions fired at assistant vice minister Yasuhiro Shimizu especially centered on how the government was going to evaluate the opinions expressed at the government-sponsored hearings, which kicked off last week, as well as the public opinions the government plans to gather between July 2 to Aug. 12 via email, fax and regular mail.

"Even though the government asks us to choose from the three energy mix scenarios, those (options) are not shown in the public comment sheet," said Hideaki Takemura from the Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies, pointing the finger at the way the government is collecting the comments. "How are you going to evaluate if one person just writes 'nuclear phaseout' even if what is meant is zero percent?"

Shimizu replied that such a response would be categorized as "other," meaning it would not be counted as endorsing the zero percent scenario. "We have not really decided how we are going to seek a consensus based on thousands of opinions from the public," said Shimizu, who was roundly jeered by the audience.

The government is attempting to establish a national consensus on the future energy mix by hosting public hearings in 11 cities nationwide and deliberative polls, and soliciting public comments before it compiles a long-term strategy by the end of August. The hearings, in which members from the public apply to attend and some are reportedly chosen at random to attend, including the few allowed to speak, kicked off in Saitama on July 14 and two are scheduled for Sunday, in Sapporo and Osaka.

But since the get-go, the hearings have drawn flak as lacking sincerity, after employees of Tohoku Electric Power Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co. "randomly" chosen to speak in the government-sponsored hearings in Sendai and Nagoya expressed pronuclear opinions. Only nine people per gathering were given two minutes to offer their views.

The government responded to the criticism by allowing 12 people, but none from the utility industry, to vent their opinions in subsequent hearings.

That the government spent only 31 minutes to approve the three key energy mix scenarios at the June 29 Energy and Environmental Council, which was closed to the public, only added to the outrage, as did the fact that the hearings and email opinions being solicited only relate to the three options.

"This is a very important issue for Japan. I want the government to spend more time discussing and making this process open to the public," said Hisayo Takada at Climate/Energy Campaigner.

Many at Thursday's alternative event said they believe the government is also being deceptive in the way it explains the three scenarios. The state says the 15 percent option follows the logic that building new reactors would now be difficult. But participants said the government has to build new reactors just to meet the 15 percent target, given that several reactors face decommissioning due to old age and others, including those at Chubu Electric's Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, have been idled because it is believed they are not capable of withstanding a major temblor or massive tsunami.

Social Democratic Party head Mizuho Fukushima, who attended Thursday's event, expressed anger.

"The scenarios are manipulative, as some might think there will be no new nuclear power plants built under the 15 percent scenario," she told Shimizu of the NPU. "I ask you to rewrite (the secenario) to clearly state that the government is not ruling out the option of building new reactors."

Shimizu defended the government by saying the state took the rare initiative to solicit public opinions, but critics said the views presented were too narrowly focused.

Some at the event also said the government needs to promote wider public hearings and solicit a greater range of opinions.

The government spent more than ¥74 million to commission major advertising firm Hakuhodo Inc. to coordinate the hearings, but major newspapers are only running understated government advertising about the solicitation of opinions from the public.

"Many of my friends do not know about the public comments," said Shyota Ushiyama, 21, a student at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. "Even if they do, they are dismissive, as they believe that their voices will not count." As part of his effort, Ushiyama said he handed out more than 2,500 papers soliciting public comments last week to raise awareness among students and other citizens.

The organizers of Thursday's event held a similar meeting in the city of Fukushima the same day, and plan to hold another one Wednesday in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, a gathering Tuesday in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and one in Yokohama on Aug. 8, all with the aim of holding government officials to account.



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