Public Involvement in Japan’s Nuclear Power Licensing System Nuke Info Tokyo No. 135

CNIC was requested to provide information on the approval process for construction of nuclear power plants in Japan and in particular on rules and practice relating to public involvement and information disclosure. This article was written in response to that request. We hope that it will be of use to citizens’ groups concerned about the introduction of nuclear power into their countries, in particular in the Asian region.

We do not present the Japanese system as a model. Japanese civil society groups are deeply dissatisfied with it in many ways. However, a comparison with systems being introduced in countries which do not yet have nuclear power plants might help identify inadequacies in the proposed systems. Likewise, we would be interested to hear about aspects of the systems in other countries which are superior to Japan’s system.

Broadly speaking, requirements for public involvement and information disclosure in Japan’s nuclear licensing system can be broken into three categories: requirements specified in law, requirements specified in agreements between electric power companies and local authorities, and customary practice. In comparing the systems of different countries, there may be a tendency to focus on formal legal requirements and procedures. However, in Japan at least, these are not necessarily the most significant factors in determining whether nuclear power projects are approved.

Approval Process
The main procedures for licensing a nuclear power plant are shown in the diagram below, but before these begin the electric power company must obtain local agreement to begin the process. This is not a legal requirement, but in practice no nuclear power project can proceed without it. Specifically, agreement must be obtained from the mayor of the local municipality, the governor of the prefecture and from the municipal and prefectural assemblies. Two types of agreement are required, one covering the preliminary study and the other covering the construction plan.

Local residents for and against construction may petition the mayor and the governor, as well as the local and the prefectural assemblies. The local authorities and the power companies often hold explanatory meetings for the local residents. There have also been cases where local referenda were held. One such referendum was held on November 18, 2001 in Miyama Town in Mie Prefecture (which later amalgamated with another town to form Kihoku Town). In this case 67.5% of legitimate votes opposed construction of a nuclear power plant. The result of the local referendum was not legally binding, but the project was cancelled.

Once local approval for a preliminary study has been given, the power company can then carry out its own preliminary study of the ground condition and begin proceedings under the Environmental Impact Assessment Act. During the formal environmental assessment stage, public comments are sought on two occasions. The power company collates the comments and submits them to the Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry along with its own responses to the comments received from the public. At this stage in the process the governor of the prefecture also submits his or her views. It is customary for the governor to listen to the views of the local municipalities when forming his or her views. The Minister is not obliged to accept the views of the public, nor of the mayor or governor, but it is unlikely that the Minister would support construction of a nuclear power plant if the mayor or governor opposed it.

Under the Japanese system, issues unique to nuclear energy, namely those relating to radioactivity, are not covered in the environmental assessment. Nuclear legislation was first introduced in the 1950s. When basic environmental legislation was introduced starting in the late 1960s, the government took the position that radiation-related issues were already covered. Environmental laws, therefore, excluded radiation-related issues, simply referring to the pre-existing nuclear legislation.

When agreement has been received for the construction plan itself, it is possible for the power company to move ahead with the nuclear-specific procedures in parallel with the environmental assessment process. The first step is the first public hearing. This hearing is legally required under a decision of the former Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI – now the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry (METI)). METI hosts the meeting and the power company explains its construction plan. Residents are selected from amongst those who have submitted public comments to present their opinions about the plan. The power company responds to the residents’ comments, so in practice, it is not so much a hearing as an explanatory meeting. However, it provides formal grounds for claiming that the residents’ opinions were taken into consideration in the safety assessment.

In some cases the local authorities may take the view that the preliminary study and the construction plan should be treated separately and initially only approve the preliminary study. In such cases, the power company re-announces its construction plan and proceeds to the first hearing after the results of the preliminary study have been submitted (assuming of course that the preliminary study judged that construction is possible).

After the Minister has approved the environmental assessment and the first hearing has taken place, the power company may submit an application to the Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry for designation of the project as an important electrical power development. This designation is issued as a METI notice based on a Cabinet Agreement. (In many cases such notices are based on a law, but in this case the notice was based on a Cabinet Agreement.) The matter is referred to the governor for comment when such a designation is made.

After receiving this designation, based on the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Law, the power company applies to the Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry for a reactor establishment license. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA, part of METI) assesses the application. The Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) double-checks NISA’s findings in regard to safety, while the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) double-checks matters related to economic viability and the assurance of “peaceful use”. When the safety double-check is commenced, NSC hosts a second public hearing. The requirement for this hearing derives from an NSC determination, which carries legal force. During the second hearing, METI explains the results of NISA’s safety assessment, residents give their opinions and METI responds. The second hearing is conducted in a similar fashion to the first and the residents’ views are said to have been taken into consideration during the double-check process.

Opportunities to Influence the Decision
Basically, there are no more opportunities for public involvement after a reactor establishment license has been awarded. However, in reality, if the project is not stopped before the environmental assessment begins, the process just keeps moving forward. A unique exception was when a plan to construct a reactor in Maki Town, Niigata Prefecture (since merged with Niigata City) was stopped by a local referendum after an application for a reactor establishment license had already been submitted. The license application was submitted on January 25, 1982, but the Tohoku Electric Power Company failed to acquire some of the land for the site, so the safety review was suspended. A local referendum was held on August 4, 1996 and 60.9% of eligible votes opposed the project. Even then Tohoku Electric did not withdraw its plan until December 24, 2003 (see NIT 98).

If residents want to block a nuclear construction project, the earlier they do so the better. Effective ways of doing this include preventing the power company from acquiring land for the site, refusing to relinquish fishing rights and preventing the power company from obtaining agreement from the local authorities. As mentioned above, regardless of the lack of formal legal authority, no nuclear power plant will be built without the agreement of the local and prefectural governments. There are many examples in Japan where local communities have prevented construction of nuclear power plants in this way.

Information Disclosure
At that early stage the information that residents can get their hands on is limited. It is necessary to keep an eye on developments in the local municipal authority. The only publicly available information is simple explanatory material provided by the power company, but power companies sometimes prepare detailed documents for members of the local council and influential people in the local community.

In the context of the environmental assessment an outline of the proposed nuclear power plant, as well as information about the local climate, plants and animals, the impact of warm water discharge, and environmental pollution arising from construction are provided. However, as mentioned above, explanations about nuclear safety and information about environmental contamination arising from radioactivity are not provided at this stage. This information is eventually released as appendixes to the application for a reactor establishment license. (Some simple remarks are included in the documents handed out at explanatory meetings and at the first public hearing.)

At this stage detailed information is published, including large quantities of data about ground condition and earthquakes, the safety assurance system, management of radioactive waste, radiation exposure due to the release of radioactivity in the course of normal operations, accident scenarios and predictions of the damage that would arise from such accidents. In addition to the license application, most of the documents submitted in the course of NSC’s and AEC’s double-checks are made available to the public. Documents containing the analytical basis are not released, but judges have ordered the release of some of this information during lawsuits for the annulment of licenses.

Disclosure of information has improved due to the need to pacify the public after accidents. The proceedings of commissions and review committees are held in public and documents are handed out to observers. These documents can also be downloaded from the internet. On the other hand, liberalization of the electricity market is being used as an excuse to withhold more information on the grounds that it is commercial-in-confidence.

Power of Local Authorities and Residents
Due to repeated accidents and incidents, local and prefectural governments are more able to speak out than they were. Local and prefectural governments effectively have a power of veto over restart after accidents. There are some cases where this right is explicitly stated in safety agreements between the power company and the local government. In the case of Kashiwazaki City and Kariwa Village, a forum has been established where representatives of local residents (pro, anti and neutral in regard to nuclear power) can demand explanations from METI, Tokyo Electric Power Company and the prefecture.

Residents can exert pressure on their local authority in all sorts of ways. At times they can wield considerable power. On February 22, 2000, after a petition opposing construction of a nuclear power plant in Ashihama signed by more than 810,000 residents of Mie Prefecture (more than half the population) was submitted to the governor, he demanded that the plan be withdrawn. On the same day Chubu Electric Power Company announced that it was abandoning the project.

Limitations of the System
A significant limitation of the current system is the lack of formal opportunity for involvement by people beyond the administrative boundaries of the local authority and prefecture in which the plant is to be built. Lip service is paid to seeking the views of neighboring towns, but their rights and opportunities for participation are limited. For example, the people of Hakodate in Hokkaido Prefecture live just 35 km across a narrow strait from the Ohma Nuclear Power Plant in Aomori Prefecture. However, they were not allowed to take part in the first public hearing. In response to complaints they were allowed to participate in the second hearing, but they are not included in the disaster prevention plan for the plant. Nor do they receive any financial compensation, although surrounding towns within Aomori Prefecture do. Because of the narrow strait of water separating them, they are not considered to be adjacent to Ohma.

From the above account it should be clear that Japan has formal procedures for public involvement and information disclosure in relation to the approval of nuclear power plants. However, public hearings and public comment processes tend to be proforma in nature. If residents have not blocked the project before these procedures begin, the process develops a momentum of its own which is hard to reverse.

Baku Nishio (CNIC Co-Director)

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