By Kentaro Hamada
SATSUMASENDAI Japan (Reuters) - As part of a plan to restart its nuclear industry, Japan on Thursday began a controversial consultation process with local residents near idled reactors that was criticized for failing to give everyone in the region a say.
More than a year after Japan's last reactor was shut down in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, officials began a series of townhall meetings to explain the approval process that cleared the Sendai plant in the southwest of the country for restart.
But local authorities set strict ground rules for the first meeting in Satsumasendai, the coastal city of 98,000 people 1,000 km (600 miles) southwest of Tokyo that hosts the two-reactor Kyushu Electric Power Co facility.
"As we saw in Fukushima, once there's an accident, the impact is felt across a large region," said Makoto Matsuzaki, an anti-nuclear legislator for Kagoshima prefecture, where Satsumasendai is located.
"They face that risk but have no rights and no say," said the Japanese Communist Party assemblywoman. "It's like going to get a risky surgery at a hospital without giving your consent."
More than 160,000 people were forced to flee their homes after the triple meltdowns at Fukushima, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and towns closest to the Tokyo Electric Power Co plant remain off limits.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government wants to bring reactors back online once they pass tougher security checks imposed after the Fukushima disaster. Japan must import expensive fossil fuels to replace the power from the nation's 48 nuclear power stations, which previously supplied around 30 percent of Japan's electricity.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) approved Sendai's safety features in September. The plant still needs to pass operational safety checks.
The government says it will defer to local authorities before proceeding, but there are no legally binding rules governing the consultation process.
Kagoshima Governor Yuichiro Ito says the final decision will rest with the governments of the prefecture and Satsumasendai. Ito and the city's mayor, Hideo Iwakiri, both favor restarting the plant.
In Ichikikushikino, a town less than 5 km from the plant, more than half the 30,000 residents signed a petition opposing the restart. That town and nearby Hioki city, with 50,000 people, have both formally asked to be part of the approval process, but Governor Ito has refused.
Nuclear power is unpopular nationwide after the Fukushima disaster. Cities and towns that host nuclear plants often support them as they depend on the facilities for jobs and government subsidies, while nearby towns are often less supportive.
City and prefectural officials hosting Thursday's townhall barred the 1,000 residents who packed a concert hall from recording the briefing and ruled out questions on such areas of concern as evacuation plans or the broad issue of restarts.
Activists and residents say evacuation plans drafted by local authorities are unrealistic and should be vetted by the NRA.
Instead, dark-suited NRA officials fielded specific, technical questions about the vetting process that the agency followed in clearing Sendai for restart.
"What is the point of this meeting then?" asked one woman, who said she ought to be allowed to record the proceedings.
Organizers were forced to introduce a lottery system due to the high interest in attending the meeting. An official said residents were assigned seats to ensure that everyone was able to sit.
In a statement emailed to Reuters, Greenpeace called the meetings a "farce". The group said it was clear officials considered the event a one-way conversation without truly addressing residents' concerns.
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito in TOKYO; Editing by William Mallard and Jeremy Laurence)