What are the Pros and Cons
The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) recently announced its intention to hold public hearings and request public comments before restarting any reactors in Japan. This has caused a lot of consternation, since it seems it will cause yet additional delay in a process that has already gone on longer than a lot of people have hoped. The concern about the public meeting/comment process has been expressed in newspaper editorials and elsewhere.
Among the arguments against such public hearings are that they aren't required. Some also point to other countries, such as the US, where public comment may be required for new regulations and for new reactors, but not for the restart of reactors that have been shut down.
In truth, however, the situation is very different in Japan than it is in the US. In Japan, local jurisdictions must give their approval for the restart of a reactor after it has been shut down. At the moment, public opinion in Japan is very divided, and it is safe to say that a majority of the population, particularly those around existing plants, would like to see the reactors near them stay shuttered.
While holding public hearings and requesting public comment doesn't necessarily win everyone over, it seems to me that an open dialogue between the NRA and the public could help alleviate the concerns of the public and perhaps win over some local mayors and governors who are now opposed to the restarts.
Added March 30: After publishing this blog, I realized that NRC Chairman Macfarlane had made a statement in her remarks at the NRC Regulatory Information Conference on March 11--the anniversary of the Fukushima accident--that address this very point: "I believe that when we demonstrate that our decisions reflect the best available information, and when we demonstrate openness to external interlocutors, it enhances public confidence."
However, for the public interaction to have the desired effect, the NRA will have to assure that the public comment is not just an exercise in checking off boxes. If they hold public meetings, they will really have to lay out in detail what they have done and how all the known concerns that were raised by the Fukushima accident have been addressed, and why the changes they have made are sufficient. When questions are asked at those meetings, they will have to be sure their responses provide specific answers, not just vague reassurance. If they ask for written comments from the public, they will have to respond to the comments and explain how they have addressed the concerns. If the comments raise any new issues that are valid, they will have to address these issues.
[In the United States, the provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as decisions by courts, require that government agencies provide such explanations in response to written comments from members of the public. This is not the case in Japan at present.]
Hopefully, all of this can be accomplished without too much further delay, but it seems to me that, as long as Japan has the requirement for local authorization for restarts, the time spent will be worth it if it helps assure local governments that the modifications made to the plants will really prevent another Fukushima-like event.