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Nuclear regulators can’t win

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which observed the first anniversary of its creation on Sept. 19, faces two diametrically opposed criticisms. Proponents of nuclear power generation criticize the NRA as the root cause of the delay in the government’s policy to promote nuclear power, while “no-nuke” groups brand the body as a mouthpiece of the “nuclear power village” (the strong network of public organizations and power companies that work toward expansion of nuclear power).

These bitter criticisms coming from both ends of a spectrum seem to summarize the contradictions of Japan’s nuclear power policy. The NRA has become a skewed organization because the idea behind creating it was to satisfy both proponents and opponents of nuclear power. That has resulted in the lack of capabilities to execute its missions, thus making nuclear power plants in Japan even more dangerous than before.

Besides drawing up regulatory standards, the NRA has during the past year tackled two principal issues: safety inspection of nuclear power plants and the fiasco at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant of Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got himself laughed at when he said the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was “under control.”

He was talking about the leak of radioactively contaminated water from the plant at a general meeting of the International Olympic Committee (held in Buenos Aires in September in his bid to invite the 2020 summer games to Tokyo).

The leak was first detected in April, and things are going from bad to worse. A Tepco insider confided, “While it is true that we have been taking makeshift measures, the biggest cause has been the lack of cooperation with the NRA.”

When a leak of contaminated water from a tank on the ground came to light in April, the NRA was hesitant to deal with the problem. NRA chief Shunichi Tanaka refused to work with Tepco and the trade and industry ministry’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, saying it would be self-contradictory for his organization to both work out a plan to contain the leak and to do the regulation work.

This attitude came under bitter criticism from a professor at a national university well-versed in nuclear safety. He pointed out that the NRA first gave its tacit approval to Tepco and the energy agency pushing a plan to build a bypass for underground water at the plant site while doing nothing to control contaminated water, and that it then started complaining only after the leak problem surfaced.

After Tokyo was selected as the site for the 2020 Olympics, the government decided to become fully involved with the problem of contaminated water at Fukushima No. 1. Simultaneously it was decided that the NRA work closely with Tepco.

But the Tepco insider said that this would not solve the problem because the NRA’s secretariat charged with implementing the NRA’s policies does not have sufficient capability to solve the problem.

The secretariat is currently staffed with a little more than 500 workers, mainly technical workers who came from the trade and industry ministry and the education and science ministry. Of them, about 300 are assigned to examining and inspecting the safety of nuclear reactors, leaving a very limited number of workers to be in charge of the accident at Fukushima No. 1 and contaminated water leakage from the plant.

Although the NRA was patterned after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the United States, the difference in scale is obvious. The U.S. NRC has nearly 4,000 full-time employees looking after 104 reactors in the U.S. against the NRA’s some 500 employees in charge of 54 reactors in Japan.

The national university professor said that the NRA’s shortcomings are not just in the number of workers but also in the quality of work. He pointed out that sufficient training has not been given to NRA staffers to get them familiar with real nuclear power plants. A nuclear engineer of a power company said that the NRA workers are just a disorderly crowd.

In preparation for the Diet session opening in October, the government planned to double the NRA’s staff to 1,000. But the university professor said it would be “a mere drop in the bucket” because the increase comes from a merger with the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES).

The merger was to take place when the NRA was created last year, but has been delayed due partly to the high wages being paid to high-ranking JNES officials who had parachuted down from the trade and industry ministry.

JNES came into being in 1999 following a criticality accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility operated by JCO Co. in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. It does not have a great reputation for how it undertakes inspection and regulatory work.

The Tepco insider said that even though there are capable experts in the former Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI), it has been taboo to rely on JAERI, which merged with the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation and the Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute to form the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. It must be recalled that the appointment of Tanaka as NRA chief was criticized since he is originally from JAERI.

The failure to use the human resources buried in JAERI has exposed nuclear reactors in Japan to greater risks, said the national university professor. Japan’s nuclear power plants are becoming riskier because people from the nuclear power village are excluded from the NRA. This is a great contradiction.

On Sept. 2, the NRA concluded that a seismic fault near the Oi nuclear plant of Kansai Electric Power Co. in Fukui Prefecture was not active. This came only two months after the same body had proposed decommissioning the Tsuruga nuclear power plant of Japan Atomic Power Co., also in Fukui Prefecture, after an active fault was identified nearby.

These decisions would seem acceptable if based on scientific findings. But the truth is that the opinions of one of the four experts responsible for making the decisions, who is a geologist, swayed the outcome of their conclusions, according to a reporter at a national newspaper. The remaining three are dynamic geomorphologists. This episode shows just how unreliable the NRA’s geological surveys are.

The university professor said that while it is true that the nuclear power village is partly responsible for sloppy nuclear power plant designs that have led to reactor accidents, it is also a fact that only the village has the necessary human resources.

In a bid to further promote nuclear power generation, the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are preparing to reform the NRA. But they have not gone much further than superficially increasing the number of personnel as described above.

Not only has the restart of nuclear power plants been delayed but also the safety of such plants cannot be ensured. As a result of completely disconnecting the NRA from the nuclear power village, Japan’s nuclear energy policy is drifting in the direction not favored by anybody.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the October issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.