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Nuclear watchdog autonomy

As the ruling Democratic Party of Japan under Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed to make the yet-to-be-established Nuclear Regulatory Agency subordinate to the Environment Ministry, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito favored granting it greater authority.

It was reported Friday that the two sides reached a compromise on how much autonomy and power should be given to the new body. How did that happen?

On April 18, the Diet panel investigating the March 11, 2011, accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant questioned Hiroyuki Fukano, head of the trade and industry ministry’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA): To what extent were he and his agency involved in the decision by four Cabinet ministers in favor of restarting the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture, and to what extent did they act independently of the ministers’ judgment?

Although Diet panel members called on NISA to use independent judgment on the restarting of the Oi reactors, it was logically impossible to expect the NISA chief to dissent from the view taken by trade and industry minister Yukio Edano and by three other Cabinet ministers, because Edano is eager to restart the reactors and NISA is part of Edano’s ministry.

At the meeting, panel members showed their dissatisfaction with the organizational status of the NRA, which the government originally hoped to inaugurate on April 1. Under the bill that the government submitted to the Diet, the NRA would become an extra-ministerial bureau of the Environment Ministry and be given a status described under Article 8 of the National Government Organization Law.

On Feb. 2, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Diet investigative panel, issued a statement criticizing the government’s move to place the new agency under the control of the environment minister and weaken its independence by giving it an Article 8 status. The LDP and Komeito submitted their own bill to the Diet on April 20, which would give the NRA a status described under Article 3 of the law, according it the same autonomy and power as the Fair Trade Commission.

In its policy “Index 2009,” the DPJ called for making the NRA an Article 3 organization. Asked in the Diet why the DPJ changed its stance, Noda said the Fukushima disaster taught him that in cases of emergency, an organization that can quickly make decisions under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet was desirable, rather than an independent organization that makes decision through collective committee meetings.

On Feb. 27, Richard A. Meserve, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and currently president of the Carnegie Institution of Science, told the Diet investigative panel that in the United States, the NRC and power companies are fully accountable for all actions to cope with an accident at a nuclear power plant and that no decisions are made at the level of the U.S. president, except when the situation becomes so serious as to require the dispatch of federal armed forces.

If the regulatory body is an Article 8 organization, the prime minister or the environment minister may decide, for example, to stop pouring seawater into a reactor core or to delay venting radioactive substances from a reactor core into the environment. In fact, pouring seawater into the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima plant was suspended for nearly one hour in accordance with then Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s wishes. Did Noda think that this kind of decision-making was speedy and correct?

When the DPJ came to power in 2009, it stressed the need to shift political initiatives from bureaucrats to elected politicians. Its move to grant the planned NRA Article 8 status may have been in line with this thinking. But it must not be forgotten that the worst was averted in the Fukushima disaster thanks not to decisions by politicians, but to actions taken by professionals and experts on the scene who acted against political judgments.

According to a government insider, one factor that led the DPJ to favor granting Article 8 status to the NRA was Haruki Madarame, chairman of the Nuclear Safety Commission, whose words and actions have caused public distrust of experts. The insider says DPJ leaders much preferred to have politicians make decisions during an emergency because they wanted to avoid the nightmare of letting someone like Madarame serve as the chief of an Article 3 organization. But it must not be forgotten that the DPJ government appointed Madarame to his current post.

The NRA, if established, will have to write new standards for restarting nuclear power plants that are currently offline for regular inspection. If the new body is given limited power under Article 8 of the National Government Organization Law, it is quite possible that the standards will be dictated more by political considerations than by scientific knowledge, making them much more lenient than they should.

If the NRA becomes an Article 8 body, it can be staffed by workers on loan from other government ministries. But if it becomes an Article 3 body, such a scheme will not work, increasing personnel costs. This would run counter to Noda’s policy of reducing personnel costs of national public servants. But is it more important to reduce the number of civil servants than to ensure the safety of people?

This could exacerbate uneasiness among ordinary citizens since their trust of politics and politicians is low. In the long run, it could harm people’s trust of the government’s nuclear power-related policy

The DPJ was looking into the possibility of reaching compromise with the LDP to establish the NRA at an early date, and it was reported Friday that the DPJ would in principle accept the idea of the LDP and Komeito and agree to give the new body Article 3 status.

But developments so far show that the DPJ has not liberated itself from the idea of shifting more power to politicians at the expense of trust in experts and professionals. It also has become clear that the DPJ’s actions did not appear to place priority on protecting the lives of citizens.

Regardless what shape the NRA may take, the fear of a recurrence of the Fukushima tragedy will not go away easily as long as the DPJ holds on to its fundamental thinking.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the May issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japan’s political, social and economic scenes.