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Energy Solutions: Informing Energy Policy Through Public Opinion in Japan

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ainsley Schoff
September 23, 2022

On March 11, 2011 the Great East Japan Earthquake and following tsunami decimated communities and killed nearly 20,000 people. While destructive on its own, many people know the quake instead for the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi disaster, when the nuclear power plant suffered catastrophic damage and was destroyed, causing nuclear meltdowns and explosions and the evacuation of more than 150,000 people. Nuclear power is one of the globe’s most efficient energy sources, however it comes at a potentially high cost. The stability of nuclear power plants is a concern for anyone that lives in the surrounding area and many people question whether the energy tradeoffs are worth the potential risk. After the Fukushima Daiicchi disaster, the government of Japan sought the public’s opinion on that exact question: What should Japan’s energy future look like? More specifically, what was the public’s desired ratio of nuclear power generation to the overall power supply in the country?

To answer these questions and more, the Japanese government partnered with the Center for Deliberative Democracy and began a Deliberative Polling® initiative. Deliberative Polling is a method that tries to reduce citizen ignorance by performing before and after surveys, while giving citizens the chance to learn from experts and fellow citizens, ask questions and better understand the issue at hand in between. The national government of Japan felt that before the public could give their opinion about Japan’s energy future, first they needed to know more about the options and their consequent tradeoffs. While Japan had used Deliberative Polling before, this was its first national level project.

The first step was an initial telephone survey of 6,849 individuals. The survey asked about the individual’s power-related priorities, such as safety, supply stability, global warming and cost. It also asked individuals their preferred nuclear energy plans, from zero percent usage, 15 percent, or 20-25 to percent nuclear dependency. Of this initial group, 285 people were randomly selected to move forward with the Deliberative Polling initiative. This sample was generally an accurate representation of the population.

These 285 individuals went on to participate in the forum. Prior to attendance the participants received briefing materials with information detailing the three different energy policies, historical information on Japan’s current energy policy, the pros and cons of nuclear power and a summary of relevant issues. After reading the material but before the forum began, these 285 participants were given the survey again. The hope was this background material would better prepare participants to have in-depth engagement on the subject and allow for small group deliberation and effective question and answer sessions with experts. After the forum was completed, participants were given the same survey to see if their opinions had changed with more information and time to exchange perspectives.

In total, three surveys were executed. Support for zero percent nuclear energy policy started at 32.6 percent; after background materials were made available, it rose to 41.1 percent and after the forum was completed support rose again to 46.7 percent. Armed with more knowledge, participants saw an overall increase of support of 14 percent for zero nuclear power, a significant leap. Support for the 15 percent nuclear energy plan remained relatively stable, seeing a one percent overall decrease. Support for the 20-25 percent plan did not change and had 13 percent support across all three polls. Not only did the results speak for themselves, but 85.6 percent of participants rated the entire event as “very useful.” This was an effective strategy for the Japanese government to gain public insights but also it was effective for empowering individuals and helping them feel involved in the governing process.

Japan’s national government immediately took note and following the Deliberative Polling process it pledged to have zero percent dependency on nuclear energy after 2030. In the process of scaling back, the government expected to rely on 15 percent nuclear power dependency. This public opinion gathering had a direct effect on Japan’s national energy policy, exemplifying what well-organized public participation can deliver. While these results may not be reflective of Japan’s policy today, it shows that supplying citizens with information leads to greater engagement in policymaking and could lead to greater democratic involvement in the future.

Deliberative Polling initiatives like this could be used at all levels of government for a multitude of policy areas. While Japan’s initial survey sample was large, it could have been a community of 1000 and forums of 50 to look at public education or community development. At the state or regional level it could be used for annual budgeting to better understand resident’s priorities and values, and to inform the public of current budgetary restrictions that would help them better understand how the government makes choices.

To learn more about this case, visit https://participedia.net/case/731. To learn more about Deliberative Polling, visit https://participedia.net/method/147. To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.

Author: Ainsley Schoff is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. She is passionate about economics, public policy, agriculture and the environment, and how harnessing data can help solve the world’s problems. Before her studies she spent years managing large-scale farms in New Zealand. She obtained her undergraduate degree from George Washington University and can be reached at [email protected].

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