TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese utility said on Friday the government's nuclear watchdog asked it to recruit local residents to attend a public forum and speak in favor of its planned use of plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide or MOX fuel at one of its reactors.
In a written response to the trade ministry on whether it had tried to steer public opinion in favor of nuclear power, Chubu Electric Power Co said it had been asked by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) in 2007 to ensure that a sufficient number of favorable views was represented at a symposium in Shizuoka prefecture, south of Tokyo.
The ministry surveyed the six of Japan's nine power companies to have held public forums in the past five years.
While Chubu eventually decided not to plant questions at the forum, it said it complied with the watchdog's request to pad the event with its own staff and others posing as participants.
"I deeply regret the misleading actions which could be interpreted as trying to influence public debate on nuclear power at a government-sponsored event," Chubu President Akihisa Mizuno said.
The revelation comes after Kyushu Electric Power Co
in southern Japan admitted that a manager asked employees of its affiliates to send email messages in favor of nuclear power to a TV program covering a public forum.
Trade and energy minister Banri Kaieda, whose ministry oversees NISA, would only say the government will "thoroughly look into past actions," drawing ire from some citizens' groups.
Takuma Suzuki, 71, director of a group of Shizuoka citizens who organize to discuss safety at the Hamaoka nuclear plant, said: "Whether the staged questionings occurred or not, the fact that NISA requested that these staged questions be asked is an abomination."
Hamaoka was shut down indefinitely in May by Prime Minister Naoto Kan because its location, near a juncture of tectonic plates, is seen at risk of being hit by a major earthquake.
Nuclear power has become a political lightning rod in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which triggered a radiation crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Public concerns about nuclear safety have prevented the restart of nuclear reactors shut for routine maintenance, stirring worries of potential power shortages.
Five other utilities -- Tokyo Electric, Tohoku Electric, Hokkaido Electric, Shikoku Electric and Chugoku Electric -- reported Friday their investigations turned up no evidence of their having tried to plant opinions at public nuclear forums.
(Reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro; Writing by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Michael Watson)