TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's government came under fire on Tuesday over its handling of public hearings on nuclear energy policy, threatening to dent already sagging support for the ruling party ahead of an election many expect to be this year.
The latest furor follows Monday's massive rally in Tokyo against nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, an issue now so contentious that lawmakers and analysts say it could trump taxes as the focus of lower house elections, which must be held by September 2013 but could come sooner.
"This gives the impression that they haven't learned anything," said Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University, after news that power companies' employees were among the few chosen to speak at hearings on changes to energy policy after Fukushima, the world's worst atomic disaster in 25 years.
It was an echo of a scandal just one year ago, when Kyushu Electric Power sought to sway public opinion at a hearing on restarting reactors in southern Japan.
In a sign of the growing discontent, more than 100,000 anti-nuclear protesters marched in Tokyo on Monday, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, already struggling as his Democratic Party unravels over plans to hike the sales tax to curb public debt.
"The anti-nuclear people are calling for the Democrats to be voted out," Nakano added.
The rally was the biggest since Noda said last month Japan needs to restart idled nuclear reactors to protect jobs and the economy.
The government is considering three options for its medium-term energy portfolio -- reduce nuclear power's role to zero as soon as possible, aim at a 15 percent share by 2030, and seek a 20-25 percent share by the same date.
The new energy mix, to be decided in August, will replace a scrapped 2010 programme that had sought to raise nuclear power's share to more than half of electricity needs by 2030 from about 30 percent before the March 2011 disaster.
The 15 percent solution -- which most experts expect the government to select -- would require all 50 of Japan's reactors, all but one of which are now idled for safety checks, to resume operations before gradually closing older units, an official at the government's National Strategy Unit told reporters on Friday.
One reactor in western Japan was restarted earlier this month and another is set to resume operations soon.
Public hearings on the future energy mix are being held around the country, with nine representatives chosen by lottery to speak at each event -- three for each of the options.
The public can comment via the Internet or fax, while a random sample will be surveyed through a process called "deliberative polling", in which views are solicited after group discussions with experts and policymakers.
On Sunday, an employee of Tohoku Electric Power Co was among those who spoke in favor of the 20-25 percent solution at a hearing in Sendai, northeastern Japan, prompting angry shouts from audience members who charged the hearing was rigged.
Then on Monday, a Chubu Electric employee spoke out for the same option, arguing: "Not one single person died as a result of radiation from the (Fukushima) accident".
The Fukushima disaster forced some 150,000 people to flee their homes, many never to return. Some committed suicide after seeing their homes and livelihoods destroyed.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said the government would be looking at how to improve the hearings.
In another development that could fan public concerns about nuclear safety, Trade and industry minister Yukio Edano said the government would review seismological data for nuclear plants to assess whether any are built on active fault lines.
He was responding to media reports that a review by the nuclear watchdog indicated Hokuriku Electric Power Co's Shika station northwest of Tokyo sits atop a faultline.
Noda, though, has made clear he thinks reactor restarts are vital to prevent blackouts and keep rising electricity costs from hurting the world's third biggest economy. Many experts say a decision to opt for 15 percent by 2030 is a done deal.
That might be little different from the ruling Democratic Party's main rival, the once-dominant Liberal Democrats, but it could provide an opening for new smaller parties -- such as that led by populist Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto -- that are springing up ahead of a possible election.
Additional reporting by Osamu Tsukimori and Risa Maeda; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and Jonathan Thatcher