Creating true nuclear watchdog exacts toll in time, trust

by Ayako Mie

Second Of Two Parts

The Diet looks like it’s finally set to deliberate a long-stalled bill to create a new nuclear regulatory agency that will serve as a true atomic energy watchdog and, hopefully, rebuild the public trust lost by its predecessors.

Given that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda initially planned to inaugurate the new regulatory body April 1, critics are arguing the delay has only served to highlight his government’s failure to make progress on drafting new nuclear regulations, nearly 15 months after the Fukushima disaster started last March.

The perceived cozy ties between the regulatory authorities and the nuclear industry under the current setup have prompted a hail of public criticism and calls for a new agency to be created, completely independent from the government and any other political or private entities.

Some critics have even claimed that Noda and his administration weren’t serious about reforming the nuclear sector and creating an effective watchdog in the first place.

The turn in events was set in motion by the Liberal Democratic Party last week, when the largest opposition group finally agreed to submit a counterproposal for negotiations with the Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling bloc over the issue.

Kicking off Diet debate is growing more critical for Noda by the day, as all but one of Japans’ nuclear reactors remain offline and the prospect of power shortages this summer looms ever larger.

Noda’s Cabinet has already approved the restart of two idled reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture, and is busy pressing local authorities and residents, who remain deeply concerned and skeptical over the facility’s safety, to give the green light to resume operations.

At present, only reactor 3 at Hokkaido Electric Power Co.’s Tomari power plant remains online. But this unit is also scheduled to be halted for a regular inspection May 5, bringing the nation’s atomic energy output to a complete standstill — unless the government succeeds in getting the two Oi reactors restarted by then.

But the apparent breakthrough in the Diet stalemate has failed to appease many experts.

“Nothing has changed,” said Muneo Morokuzu, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy and a former Toshiba Corp. employee. “If they can’t create a regulatory body like the U.S. Nuclear Regulation Commission, they should just scrap nuclear power.”

The government first unveiled plans to create a new watchdog last August. The new entity would rip the regulatory duties of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Association, the primary nuclear regulator under the current framework, from the clutches of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — which is tasked with promoting nuclear power.

The DPJ-led government’s proposal also aims to end a culture in which NISA officials, who in many cases lack engineering expertise, are often parachuted into highly paid jobs in the nuclear industry, discrediting the integrity of the inspection process.

The government first came under criticism when it announced that the new watchdog would be set up under the auspices of the Environment Ministry — which has traditionally supported atomic power as a form of cleaner energy than that generated by coal- or oil-fired plants.

The opposition also claimed the plan would bestow too much power to the Environment Ministry, which would have the authority to appoint — and dismiss — the agency’s head at any time, and submit its annual budget requests.

The government drew even more fire over its initial proposal to call it the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency, a term critics slammed as a misnomer that implied nuclear power remains safe. “The government is creating another myth around the safety” of atomic energy, said Tomoyuki Taira, a Lower House lawmaker and a member of the DPJ’s panel on the new regulatory body.

In addition, the government’s plan fails to include a comprehensive ban on senior officials being rapidly rotated among different posts in the new entity.

The state bureaucracy has led to various personnel problems because senior officials at NISA are shuffled around every two to three years. This is generally considered too short a period to allow them to acquire the necessary technical expertise to interpret reactor inspection data on their own, thus forcing them to sometimes rely on utilities’ own explanations. Under the DPJ’s plan, only 19 of the agency’s roughly 500 employees would be prohibited from being shipped back and forth between posts in such a manner.

Officials in the LDP, therefore, have instead proposed creating an independent regulatory commission along the lines of the NRC that would oversee the new watchdog and appoint its leaders. The commission’s members would be appointed by the Diet.

The ruling and opposition camp proposals also differ when it comes to disastrous nuclear accidents. In the event that a power station suffers a critical accident, the government’s plan would grant prime ministers ultimate executive authority to oversee the crisis, but the LDP is seeking to have such powers conferred on the chairman of its envisioned commission.

“The international community was stunned (on 3/11) when (then) Prime Minister Naoto Kan approved a request for a vent (to be installed at one of the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s wrecked reactors). Such a move is unheard of overseas,” said Yasuhisa Shiozakai, a Lower House lawmaker who heads the LDP team on the new watchdog.

Even the president of the United States is not authorized to issue such an order, Shiozakai noted, referring to comments former NRC Chairman Richard Meserve made on the Fukushima crisis.

But while the ruling and opposition parties will soon be duking the matter out in the Diet, some analysts claim neither side’s proposals would ensure the new watchdog could handle a nuclear crisis any better that the dismal efforts of Kan’s government last year.

“Neither proposal has conducted simulations based on every potential scenario to determine if their organizational structures could communicate more smoothly,” said Taira, the DPJ panel member.

Many analysts also point out that the proposals fail to address another key issue: replacing NISA’s paper-based work procedures with a more modern, speedier process. According to some experts with firsthand experience of the agency’s current process, it will be impossible to make reactors and facility inspections more effective unless the new watchdog represents a radical departure from current procedures.

“Utilities and plant makers (like Toshiba) have to prepare a 10-meter-high stack of paper under the current system (over any safety incident or to introduce new security measures). But they are forced to go back to square one whenever NISA comes across just one misspelled word in the documents,” said Tadashi Narabayashi, professor at Hokkaido University’s nuclear engineering lab and an ex-Toshiba employee.

Narabayashi, who is on NISA’s panel examining nuclear safety measures, said he has warned officials at various ministries countless times that the painstaking current process discourages utilities from introducing safety measures at their own initiative — but no one listened to his advice.

Even if Noda’s government eventually succeeds in founding the new industry regulator, many analysts say it would still take at least 10 years before it would be able to stand on its own in terms of the technical expertise required to carry out its functions.

Critics also say the government should never have allowed NISA and the Cabinet Office’s Nuclear Safety Commission, whose reputations were blackened by the Fukushima disaster, to continue checking reactors and assessing nuclear regulations since the March 2011 disasters. Instead, the government should have set up a provisional body to oversee the nuclear industry by thoroughly shaking up NISA and the NSC, such critics argue, to avoid embarrassing situations such as Fukui Prefecture’s announcement that it would test the validity of the Oi reactor stress tests because it doesn’t trust NISA’s own endorsement.

“We have to remember that NISA is an incompetent organization,” said Tetsunari Iida, executive director for the Institute of Sustainable Energy Policies. “From the very start, the government failed to fix the system as it did not understand the fundamental problems” of the atomic energy industry, said Iida.

But in the world’s most seismically active country, where massive earthquakes and tsunami are an ever-present danger, the vacuum created in Japan’s nuclear disaster response measures by the snail-paced safety reforms, even the pursuit of the new watchdog, is possibly the most alarming aspect.

Even though all but one of the nation’s reactors are offline, nuclear plants nationwide continue to store huge quantities of nuclear fuel, and many were constructed on highly active — and potentially catastrophic — fault lines, scientists have since determined.

“If another disaster happens, the government at present is unprepared to handle it,” Iida said. “It would probably take exactly the same measures as (Kan) did during the Fukushima crisis.”