Editorial: Can the Japanese government draw a true conclusion from the public hearings on nuclear energy?

To what extent, and at what speed, should Japan end its dependence on nuclear energy? The Japanese government has professed an intention to deepen this discussion with public hearings on the use of nuclear power. However, the “national discussion” heralded by the government has not deepened at all through these hearings.

On July 29, a public hearing on the ratio of nuclear energy to be used in the year 2030 was held in downtown Hiroshima.

The Japanese government has been pressed to formulate a new energy policy following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant. In order to include voices from the public, the government has staged a series of public hearings in 11 cities across Japan.

At the heart of the discussion are the options for the use of nuclear energy outlined by a council on energy and the environment established by the government. These three options include: the complete elimination of nuclear power (zero percent), moving to close the nation’s nuclear plants as quickly as possible; using nuclear power at a ratio of 15 percent, in line with the provision to decommission reactors after 40 years of operation; and using nuclear power at a ratio of 20-25 percent, which would mean constructing new nuclear plants.

For the hearing in Hiroshima, 117 people applied to speak and, of this number, 12 were selected in advance by drawing lots. The 12 that spoke voiced the following opinions: six people supported the “zero percent option”; two people backed the “15 percent option” and two supported the “20-25 percent option”; and the others made different proposals beyond the three given options.

Since the disaster in Fukushima, fresh attention has been drawn to the aftereffects of exposure to radiation from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Meanwhile, debate over the nation’s nuclear power plants had not yet taken hold more widely in the city.

A variety of opinions were indeed voiced at the hearing, such as: “The use of nuclear power exposes certain people to radiation from the initial stage of mining uranium”; “Nuclear weapons can be made from the fuel used in nuclear reactors. That’s why some politicians are seeking to hold onto the nation’s nuclear power plants”; and “If nuclear plants are decommissioned all at once, the economy can’t be sustained.”

The central government says that it will compile the public’s views based on the hearings, comments that are received by August 12, and a new type of opinion poll.

The fact that the public is now involved in the future course of the nation’s nuclear plants, which have been pushed by an alliance of politicians, bureaucrats, and businesses, is a significant development. To further strengthen this trend, it is important to engage in discussion on the idea of the “peaceful use of atomic power” itself, rather than merely considering a ratio for the use of nuclear energy.

What energy policy should the nation pursue after suffering a serious nuclear accident? This question must be at the core of the national discussion. Therefore, an “end to Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy” should be synonymous with eventually realizing “zero percent” nuclear power.

In that sense, with “zero percent” only one of several options offered for discussion, the government’s sincerity is called into question.

Another aspect of the discussion, which the government neglected to include, involves a deadline for ending our reliance on nuclear energy: by when should Japan achieve this goal?

Of greatest concern is that the discussion on the nation’s use of nuclear energy tends to devolve into a simple formula of safety versus necessity, as was seen in restarting operations at the Oi nuclear power plant. But the lessons learned from Fukushima are not limited to this simple formula.

As long as massive amounts of nuclear materials are handled, people who work at uranium mines and nuclear plants cannot avoid being exposed to radiation. The danger that radiation will indiscriminately deprive further residents of their homes and communities haunts us as well. And nuclear waste that is highly radioactive remains in limbo, with no decision yet made on the final disposal sites. Discussing the issue of nuclear energy without including these dimensions of the problem makes the conversation entirely too superficial.

The government has stated that it will issue an “innovative energy and environmental strategy” as early as the end of August. But with criticism mounting from the business sector and elsewhere, arguing that the government is acting too hastily, without due consideration, there are indications that the new policy will be announced at a later date.

The nation’s energy policy, and its path into the future, must not be easily delayed. At the same time, a hasty decision that is made without careful consideration will brew trouble down the line. Shouldn’t we take this opportunity to engage in a broader discussion?

And through the duration of this discussion, a halt should be made on all efforts to restart the nation’s idle nuclear plants.

(Originally published on July 31, 2012)