FUKUSHIMA--An overwhelming majority of those who spoke at a public hearing here on Aug. 1 about Japan's future energy policy urged an early end to dependence on nuclear energy.
The opinions showed the extent to which strong fears persist nearly 17 months after last year's disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which has kept thousands of Fukushima residents living as evacuees.
Not only has the population of Fukushima Prefecture fallen by 50,000 since the crisis, but 60,000 of the 160,000 residents who have evacuated are living temporarily outside of the prefecture.
The central government is planning to hold public hearings in a total of 11 locations around Japan to collect opinions on what the country's ratio of nuclear energy should be by 2030.
While past hearings have limited the number of people who can address the hearing to between nine and 12, the special circumstances in Fukushima led organizers to allow 30 people to give their views. Of those, 28 said all nuclear plants should be stopped before 2030.
Goshi Hosono, the state minister in charge of dealing with the Fukushima nuclear accident, began the hearing on Aug. 1 by apologizing to Fukushima residents whose lives have been turned upside down over the past 17 months.
The session lasted for about four and a half hours, an hour longer than originally scheduled.
Those who spoke up described not only the hardships they have had to endure, but also voiced criticism at the government's response.
"Ever since the accident, my grandchildren have stopped coming to my home," one participant said.
Another said, "The central government said it would take responsibility for removing radioactive contamination, but no progress has been made."
A farmer who used to live in Namie, near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, but has since evacuated to temporary housing in Koori in Fukushima Prefecture, said, "Please don't let others become disaster victims like us who have been forced out of our hometowns."
The man was also critical of the central government's current plan to re-evaluate the areas where residents have been forced to evacuate.
"If you are going to designate areas where the evacuation order will be lifted and say people can live in those areas, the bureaucrats and politicians should live and work there first," the man said, drawing applause from the audience.
Kazunori Watanabe, 38, a judicial scrivener from Tomioka, said, "There has been no recovery to conditions before the accident occurred in Fukushima. The starting point should be thinking about what can be done as we move toward zero nuclear plants."
Watanabe has set up a temporary office in Iwaki, where he works on weekdays. He commutes to that office from the temporary housing where his parents live. Watanabe spends his weekends in an apartment in Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, with his wife, 37, and newly born daughter.
One event that pushed Watanabe to attend the Fukushima hearing was a comment made at a July hearing in Nagoya. He was angered when an employee of Chubu Electric Power Co. said, "No one has died from the radiation" from the Fukushima accident.
"There are many people who died immediately after they evacuated or while leading lives as evacuees," Watanabe said. "Some people who might have lived longer if the accident hadn't occurred died, and families have also been torn apart."
A woman from Sukagawa said, "No one has taken responsibility in a true sense for the Fukushima accident. No measures have been devised to collect radioactive material emitted when accidents occur, either."
A man from Fukushima said, "Rather than have the central government decide the ratio of nuclear energy, it should be left up to the choices of consumers. In order to give consumers the freedom to choose how they want their electricity generated, be it renewable energy or nuclear energy, liberalization in the form of separating generation from transmission should be pushed forward."
While at other hearings, time was set aside to allow for those with differing opinions to debate their views, there was no such need in Fukushima, as the audience was in agreement about the direction the opinions were heading.
It remains to be seen whether the central government will seriously take into consideration the views voiced in Fukushima.
For one thing, when the central government recently approved the request by Tokyo Electric Power Co. to raise electricity rates for households, one prerequisite given was that six of the 10 reactors in Fukushima that were not damaged by the accident would be maintained. The government is also moving toward allowing the resumption of operations at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture.
There are also signs that the central government may have already decided on the future course of nuclear energy.
Three options have been presented for the ratio of electricity to be generated by nuclear power in 2030--zero percent, 15 percent or between 20 and 25 percent--yet Hosono, for one, has said that the 15-percent option would be the main focus of discussions. That is the ratio that would emerge if the central government stuck to its policy of decommissioning reactors after 40 years of operations.
However, the government has made no decision on whether the number of reactors will be increased or decreased after 2030.
The central government had initially said it would present its energy policy proposal by the end of August.
However, signs of rising opposition to nuclear energy, such as weekly Friday night protests around the Prime Minister's Official Residence that have drawn thousands of demonstrators, could force the government to delay making a decision on its energy policy.
In the eight hearings held before the one at Fukushima, 70 percent of the individuals who wished to express an opinion were in favor of the zero-percent option, while 11 percent supported the 15-percent option and 17 percent supported the option of between 20 to 25 percent. Two percent of participants gave another response.
The last of the hearings will be held on Aug. 4 in Takamatsu and Fukuoka.
Katsunobu Sakurai, mayor of Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, urged the central government to listen to the people.
At a July 31 news conference, he said: "While the central government has called for discussions among the general public, how will it actually accept the views of Fukushima residents or those who have gathered in front of the Prime Minister's Official Residence? It should not ignore these matters when making a policy decision."
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