The seismological expert credited with ensuring that Japan would embark a careful and methodical return to atomic power by demanding rigorous adherence to safety checks has left the decision-making panel of the Nuclear Regulation Authority after completing his two-year stint.
Kunihiko Shimazaki, the sole seismologist on the five-person panel, is to be replaced by a strong advocate of nuclear power.
A second commissioner whose term also expired Thursday is Kenzo Oshima, a former ambassador to the United Nations. He will be replaced geologist and Tohoku University professor Akira Ishiwatari.
The three remaining commissioners, including the chairman, comprise a radiologist and two engineers.
Nuclear power plant operators hope the reshuffle of the five-member NRA panel will make it easier to bring their idled reactors back online. However, anti-nuclear campaigners fear the move could compromise the independence of the fledging regulator and lead to an overly hasty return to atomic power.
Shimazaki oversaw the rigorous safety screenings, a process that dimmed utilities’ hopes for getting back to business.
One of the incoming commissioners, Satoru Tanaka, is considered a controversial choice because he has close ties to the nuclear industry. Pro-nuclear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s team called him the best person for the job.
A former chairman of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan and a University of Tokyo professor, Tanaka has received payments and donations from a range of bodies in the sector, including one linked to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the disaster-hit Fukushima No. 1 power plant. He has also spoken out in support of nuclear power as a central component of Japan’s electricity generation in future.
The second incoming commissioner is geologist and Tohoku University professor Akira Ishiwatari.
With all of the country’s 48 reactors currently offline, utilities are desperate to fire them up and limit the ongoing damage to earnings being caused by fossil fuel imports, which grow more expensive as the yen weakens. Shimazaki had consistently pushed for stringent observance of safety regulations and in some cases ruled against power companies.
In one case, a panel led by Shimazaki ruled in May last year that a fault line under the No. 2 reactor at the Tsuruga nuclear complex on the Sea of Japan coast was active. The reactor is likely to be scrapped.
He has also urged utilities to reassess the possible impact of stronger-than-expected tsunami and earthquakes, and to hike safety measures at the plants accordingly.
Paying tribute to Shimazaki on Wednesday, NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said he “played a significant role” in establishing the framework of a new regulatory body, after the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which used to oversee the nuclear industry, was dismantled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Observers say the first reshuffle of the NRA’s panel since its establishment in 2012 could mark a turning point to see if the regulator can remain fair and independent.