Japan's Prime Minister on July 31 criticised the country's nuclear safety agency for allegedly trying to plant questions aimed at supporting atomic energy at public forums.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) was siding with the industry rather than acting as a regular. He said it underscored a cozy relationship and the deep-rooted problem that must be corrected in the wake of the March 11 tsunami and the nuclear crisis.

“NISA, which is supposed to check nuclear safety to represent the interest of the general public, provided support for the promoters. It was more than just a help, if true,” Kan said at an energy symposium. Kan's comment followed a government report showing NISA allegedly tried to manipulate public opinion at town meetings to promote nuclear power.

Public support toward nuclear energy has shifted since the March disaster that crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

The International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) has criticised Japan's murky nuclear regulation system, while the government also acknowledged the need to separate NISA from the Trade and Industry Ministry that promotes atomic energy.

In its report on July 30 to the trade ministry, the Chubu Electric Power Co., based in central Japan, said NISA had asked the company to bring in supporters to a public forum it organised in 2007 and let them ask questions to balance out anti-nuclear views.

The report was part of the ministry's survey of Japanese nuclear power operators about their public forums over the past five years.

Another operator, Shikoku Electric Power Co., said it had received a similar request by NISA.

Chubu said it encouraged company employees to attend the meeting but didn't supply them with questions as it considered it to be inappropriate.

Trade Minister Banri Kaieda apologised for NISA's question planting and promised an independent probe.

The issue surfaced in early July when another utility, Kyushu Electric Power Co., acknowledged mobilising dozens of people to send in supportive comments to a June public hearing on whether to restart two of its reactors.

Currently, 35 of Japan's 54 reactors are idle, causing electricity shortages amid sweltering heat. The government has ordered safety checks on all reactors after the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

Kan called for a long-term effort on July 29 to scale back Japan's nuclear-reliant energy policy over the next four decades and shift to renewable power sources.

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