METI plans new entity to inspect nuclear plants

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency plans to establish an independent body in fiscal 2003 that will be responsible for inspecting nuclear power plants, according to agency officials.

The agency, a unit of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, will submit a bill for the creation of the body to the Diet during the extraordinary session that began Friday, the officials said.

The agency had planned to have the body set up in April 2004.

Following a series of scandals involving coverups of defects by the nation’s nuclear plant operators, however, the agency now wants to bring the schedule forward.

Earlier this year, nuclear plant operators — including Tokyo Electric Power Co., Japan’s largest power supplier — came under fire for covering up damage at nuclear plant facilities over several decades.

Although METI’s nuclear watchdog has contracted out inspections of nuclear plants to several expert bodies, it now wants the new organization to be entirely responsible for checks on facilities.

The body will also examine the results of regular internal checkups by nuclear plant operators, with the final evaluation of results conducted by the agency, according to the officials.

The organization will comprise several hundred experts from the nuclear industry and related fields.

To discourage future coverups, the agency will also ask the Diet during this session to tighten existing laws on the electric and nuclear industries.

It will suggest that fines of around 100 million yen be slapped on nuclear plant operators found to have violated this legislation.

In a related development, the Nuclear Safety Commission of the Cabinet Office has approved a plan by the agency to introduce safety standards for nuclear power facilities.

The agency has advocated the introduction of standards for evaluating the safety of facilities when plant operators discover damage.

If such facilities are found to be safe under the terms of the standards, plants can continue to operate.

The agency also proposed a new system under which nuclear plant operators would conduct regular checkups of facilities with the government examining the results.

The Cabinet Office’s commission decided the measures are appropriate.

The commission said, however, that the government should order nuclear plant operators to provide quality assurances for their operations and the results of checkups.

The government should also evaluate their assurances, it added.

The commission suggested that the agency evaluate risks by type of facility and set technological safety standards for each type.