Abe picks for NRA ‘undermine’ nuclear watchdog’s independence

Reuters

The Lower House has approved a reshuffle of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, including appointing a commissioner who has received more than ¥10 million from nuclear-related entities over the past decade to fund his academic research.

Among the two commissioners stepping down from the five-member panel at the NRA, one is a fierce critic of safety practices within the industry.

Opponents said the changes, which were approved Tuesday, undermine Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s stated commitment to an independent watchdog at a time when utilities are pushing to restart their idled reactors.

The NRA’s independence is under scrutiny as it reviews applications to restart reactors, all 48 of which were shuttered in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The commission was set up as an independent agency after the disaster to replace a regulator seen as too close to the industry and to an energy ministry that promoted atomic power.

The Lower House, where Abe has a majority, approved his administration’s nomination of Satoru Tanaka, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Tokyo and a proponent of nuclear power.

It also approved geologist Akira Ishiwatari, whose candidacy generated little controversy. The Upper House is expected to also give them the green light.

Industry analysts said any nuclear energy expert in Japan would have received funding from the industry, given the decades of close ties between utilities and academia.

“But it is a matter of the degree of money you receive,” said Hideyuki Ban of Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a nonprofit foe of nuclear power.

Tanaka did not respond to emailed requests for comment on the donations, which were detailed in financial disclosures and the media.

“Bringing someone like (Tanaka) on as a regulator changes the fundamental role of the NRA,” said Tomoko Abe, an independent anti-nuclear lawmaker who is not related to the prime minister. “This nomination could undermine the very role of the regulator.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said last month that the nominees were the “best people for the job, who can fulfill their roles from an independent, scientifically unbiased and fair standpoint.”

Akihiro Sawa, a research director at the 21st Century Public Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Keidanren business lobby, defended Tanaka.

“Academic institutions now encourage professors to get research funds and it’s very competitive, so his background should not be judged purely on the outside funds he has received,” Sawa said.

Tanaka, who was not at the Diet on Tuesday, has sought to dispel concerns about his candidacy.

“If I am approved, I will take into account mistakes from the Fukushima accident and I will do my utmost by utilizing all my experience,” he told NHK recently.

Eight months after the three meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1, he was one of the first experts to say it may be safe to consider atomic energy again, according to remarks he made to a government panel on energy.

Between the 2004 and 2010 fiscal years, Tanaka received ¥6 million for research from three firms, Electric Power Development Co Ltd, known as J-Power, which is building a nuclear plant in northern Japan; reactor maker Hitachi Ltd’s nuclear division; and Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy Ltd.

Jiji Press said Tanaka also received around ¥3 million over five years to March 31, 2012, from the Tepco Memorial Foundation. A foundation spokesman said Tanaka had been paid for judging research grants, but gave no amount.

Tokyo University said it had no information on any possible payment from the Tepco foundation, as it would be Tanaka’s private income.

In disclosures to the NRA in April, Tanaka said he received at least ¥500,000 in the year to March 2012 from the foundation. NRA nominees are only required to disclose funding received in the past three years.

For the year to March 2012, Tanaka told the NRA he also received a total of ¥1.1 million from Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy and Taiheiyo Consultant, an engineering firm.

None of the original NRA commissioners received funds from a utility or nuclear plant operator for their research in the three years leading up to their appointment, according to disclosures made when the NRA was set up.

The figures exclude a total of ¥120 million Tepco donated during the four years through fiscal 2011 to a nuclear fuel cycle course taught by Tanaka, according to Jiji.

Commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa received about ¥1.5 million in fiscal 2009-2010 from Nuclear Fuel Industries for research that he conducted with Japan’s sole producer of nuclear fuel, an NRA filing revealed.

The NRA’s most critical voice, seismologist Kazuhiko Shimazaki, will retire in September after two years as its deputy, a period during which he angered the industry with safety demands that in one case effectively scuttled the restart of a reactor.

Activists and some NRA officials had hoped Shimazaki would remain, sources with direct knowledge of the matter said. But the government said he and former Ambassador to the U.N. Kenzo Oshima wanted to leave at the end of their two-year terms.

Shimazaki has not spoken publicly about his retirement and the NRA declined to make him available for comment. It’s not clear who will be the NRA’s new deputy.

“The main objective of this shuffle is to remove commissioner Shimazaki,” said Tetsunari Iida, executive director of Japan’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, an anti-nuclear group. “The industry would never be satisfied if he wasn’t replaced.”

An official at a utility who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic called Shimazaki’s retirement a “small victory” and said utilities hope restarts will now move ahead quickly.

The first restart, at the Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, is expected to be approved in the coming months. The utility resubmitted its application, following demands from Shimazaki to upgrade its assumptions regarding earthquake risks.

NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka acknowledged the regulator is under pressure “from all different directions.”

“We have worked together to create the functions and the independence of the regulator,” Tanaka, who is no relation to the new commissioner, told a recent news conference. “This is a groundbreaking thing, and we will all work toward protecting it.”