Editor's Note: John Boyd is an IEEE Spectrum contributor reporting from Kawasaki, Japan. This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.
Public trust in Japan’s nuclear industry and a government watchdog agency has plummeted following several allegations claiming the agency attempted to influence public opinion through the power companies it oversees. Last Friday Chubu Electric Power Co. then Shikoku Electric Power Co. revealed that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) had requested them to solicit supportive participants to attend government-sponsored symposiums on nuclear energy. Chubu Electric also said NISA had asked it to find local residents in favor of nuclear power to pose prearranged questions at its symposium.
The revelations come on the heels of Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s admitting last month that a company official had asked its employees and those of affiliate companies to send e-mails supporting the restart of two of its nuclear reactors that have been idled for maintenance inspections. The e-mails were sent to a live TV program, aired on June 26, concerning the restart of the reactors. Then yesterday, Yasushi Furukawa, the governor of Saga Prefecture, which hosts the nuclear plant in question, admitted that he had suggested to the power company that it solicit such e-mails. Now Furukawa is being bombarded with e-mails from local citizens demanding he resign.
The most recent incidents of what some critics say is a history of government and industry attempts to manipulate public opinion came to light when Chubu Electric and Shikoku Electric sent reports on July 29 to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), regarding NISA’s alleged meddling. Shikoku Electric said NISA asked it to invite residents to attend a public hearing in June 2006 to speak in favor of the company’s planned use of plutonium oxide mixed with uranium, or MOX fuel. Similarly, Chubu Electric was asked to encourage supporters of nuclear energy to attend a public forum on MOX held in its region in August 2007.
“Everyone knows the government, electric utilities, and sometimes even local governments have organized public meetings to achieve harmonized preset conclusions,” Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), an independent research body in Tokyo, told Spectrum. “And not just recently, but for the last 20 or 30 years. In the industry’s early years in the 1970s public hearings on [new plant site–locations] were managed to avoid any serious conflict.”
Though Chubu Electric told NISA it could not comply with pre-arranging questions to be asked, it admitted to sending e-mails to employees and staff of affiliated companies to attend the symposium. Shikoku Electric has admitted to doing the same. The aim of this tactic was to leave few seats available for ordinary members of the public who might be opposed to the use of MOX.
In a press conference called after receiving the reports, Banri Kaieda, head of METI, the ministry overseeing NISA, said he would set up an independent panel to look into the claims, which he described as “extremely serious.” Evidence has also come to light that other power companies may have acted in a similar manner. Consequently, METI has ordered six power companies to conduct internal investigations into possible activities to win over local support for nuclear energy.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), for example, has admitted that it verbally encouraged employees and those of affiliates to attend meetings concerning the restart of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The plant, the largest nuclear generating plant in the world, was shut down after an earthquake of magnitude 6.6 struck close by in July 2007.
In a separate news conference held the same night the reports were made public, Nobuaki Terasaka, director of NISA, said, “We face a grave situation because the agency is supposed to be neutral and impartial.” He said NISA would leave it up to the independent panel to investigate the reports.
Prime Ministry Naoto Kan also held a press conference in which he said it would be necessary to “impose strict disciplinary measures” on NISA officials if the investigation proved the allegations to be true. He added that the very “existence” of NISA has been called into question. Previously, Kan has hinted that a restructuring of the nuclear regulatory framework was necessary.
Critics have noted that METI also oversees the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, which promotes nuclear energy, potentially causing a conflict with METI’s role of overseeing NISA, which is supposed to regulate the industry. And the number of calls that NISA be separated from the ministry to ensure its independence has been increasing.
But turning NISA or a new replacement regulatory body into an independent organization could prove difficult, at least in the short term, some observers believe.
“Each Japanese ministry has a kind of independence from the government, a self-autonomy,” says ISEP’s Iida. Even if a new body was set up, he says, it would probably be staffed with people from METI or the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. “So you would have the same people in control but with a different name or title,” Iida notes. “What we need to do is set up [an organization] completely independent from the nuclear industry, such as a Japanese version of NRC (the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission).”