The NRA doesn’t need a ‘yes man’

The Abe administration’s May 27 nomination of two new commissioners of the Nuclear Regulation Authority could cast a cloud over the nuclear watchdog’s credibility since one of them, Satoru Tanaka, is a nuclear energy proponent with close ties with the community of industries, bureaucracy and academia that has promoted nuclear power generation in this country. Lawmakers must scrutinize his nomination when it reaches the Diet floor to determine if he is capable of objectively carrying out his duties.

To replace two NRA commissioners whose terms end in September — Kunihiko Shimazaki, a seismologist who served as head of the Seismological Society of Japan, and Kenzo Oshima, a former ambassador to the United Nations — the administration nominated Tanaka, a professor of the University of Tokyo who specializes in the nuclear fuel cycle and treatment of nuclear waste, and Akira Ishiwatari, a professor of geology at Tohoku University who served as head of the Geological Society of Japan.

It’s not difficult to discern the intentions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, government bureaucrats and Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers who want to restart idled nuclear power plants behind the decision to not renew the tenure of Shimazaki and instead seek to appoint Tanaka.

Shimazaki is known for his strict approach to the safety of nuclear power plants. Through the study of geological faults at plant sites and examination of the steps taken at plants to cope with major quakes and tsunami, he has confronted power companies that seek to reopen their plants. He determined that a fault below the No. 2 reactor of Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture is an active fault. In screening of the Nos. 3 and 4 reactors of Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi nuclear power plant in the same prefecture, he demanded that the company strictly review the depth of a fault that can become the focus of an earthquake. His demand has ruled out the possibility of an early restart of the two reactors. Some pro-nuclear LDP lawmakers have reportedly been unhappy with Shimazaki.

In contrast, Tanaka has close ties with the nuclear power establishment. He served as an official of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum from 2010 to 2012, received more than ¥500,000 in rewards from Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Co.) Memorial Foundation in fiscal 2011 and received a donation of ¥600,000 from Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, Ltd. in fiscal 2011. His affiliation with the JAIF and the monetary gifts will likely fall within the scope of conditions that disqualify candidates for NRA commissioners, which were set by the then Democratic Party of Japan-led administration in July 2012. Under the conditions, an NRA commissioner should not have been a member of a nuclear power company and related entities and should not have received a reward from these entities in the past three years.

Shinji Inoue, senior vice minister of the Environment Ministry, said the Abe administration followed what the law says but not the conditions set by the DPJ government in nominating Tanaka to the NRA position. But Inoue contradicted his own earlier statement in the Diet that the government should follow the conditions.

Tanaka became a member of the Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy under the trade and industry ministry in June 2011. He is known to have stressed in the committee the need for Japan to maintain a certain level of nuclear power generation and to keep a fast-breeder reactor as an option for the nation’s energy policy. Given his career record and stance, one wonders just how objectively he will screen power companies’ applications for restart of nuclear power plants.

Public trust in the NRA could be lost if its neutrality is in doubt. Japan’s system of nuclear regulatory oversight was reformed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster because the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency was under the umbrella of the trade and industry ministry — which promotes nuclear energy. Established in September 2012 to replace NISA, the NRA’s oversight of the nuclear power industry must be strict and transparent.