Attempt to launch new nuclear safety agency under Environment Ministry on April 1 fizzles

Kyodo

The government, facing stiff resistance from the opposition camp, has given up launching a new nuclear regulatory agency Sunday under the Environment Ministry and will instead continue the current setup under the atomic power-promoting industry ministry despite the watchdogs’ lost credibility due to the Fukushima meltdown crisis.

“It is extremely deplorable that the launch of the agency is not in sight,” nuclear disaster minister Goshi Hosono told reporters Friday, noting the Diet has not even begun deliberating on the related bills.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, will continue to serve as the primary regulatory body, and the Nuclear Safety Commission of the Cabinet Office, which has overseen NISA’s activities, will also remain in place.

The commission’s chairman, Haruki Madarame, who had expressed his desire to step down at the end of March, said Friday he will remain in office as requested.

The government started working to set up a new regulatory agency under the Environment Ministry when the triple-meltdown crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant stirred arguments that atomic power regulators should be separated from the nuclear power-promiting industry ministry to do their regulatory and safety job properly.

The current setup has been severely criticized for making the regulatory agency a unit of METI, long a promoter of nuclear power.

But opposition parties, particularly the Liberal Democratic Party, under whose long watch all of Japan’s nuclear plants came into being, are putting up resistance. LDP lawmaker and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki wants the new agency to be made a so-called “Article 3 commission” to ensure greater independence.

“By being an external organ of the Environment Ministry, the agency cannot secure independence in terms of authority, personnel and budget,” Shiozaki said on his website.

A senior member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan said earlier that the government should strive to launch the agency by April 16, when the terms of three of the Nuclear Safety Commission’s five members end.

But some speculate that the government may have to wait until summer, when the results of investigations initiated by the government and the Diet into the Fukushima crisis are expected to come out.

A long delay in establishing the new agency could affect the ongoing process to check the safety of the country’s idled reactors via stress tests. Utilities are trying to quickly restart idled reactors, but there is strong public resistance, which could possibly be reflected in any safety agency created under the Environment Ministry.

The stress tests are currently undertaken by NISA and second-checked by the Nuclear Safety Commission, both of whose credibility was denounced over their poor response to the Fukushima crisis triggered by the March 11, 2011, megaquake and tsunami.

The three commission members whose terms end April 16 have indicated they will remain at their posts beyond that date if successors are not named, because they do not want to create a “vacuum” in nuclear safety regulation.