Staff writers

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was caught off guard and apparently at a loss for words; his mouth hung open for a brief moment.

He was battling through the first session of a new system of one-on-one debate between party leaders in the Diet on Wednesday, where he had the task of fielding opposition party leaders’ questions.

“Which (government) body is the ‘regulatory body’ as defined by the Nuclear Safety Convention?” asked Japanese Communist Party chief Tetsuzo Fuwa, testing Obuchi’s understanding of the international treaty that Japan ratified in 1996.

Obuchi was unable to answer the question and had to resort to reading from a memo he was handed. He spoke in a monotone, as if he was reciting a sutra. Reporters watching the scene on a television monitor at the Diet press club burst into laughter at the sight of Obuchi’s obvious panic.

Fuwa was grilling Obuchi over the government’s responsibility for the nuclear accident that occurred in late September at an uranium-processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Fuwa has argued that the state has not set up a government body to regulate the safety of nuclear plants separate from an organization designed to promote the utilization of nuclear energy, as required by the treaty.

At an earlier Diet session, Obuchi responded to another question from Fuwa that the government has already separated the two functions. Fuwa’s subsequent query was for the Prime Minister to name the body tasked with regulating nuclear facilities.

At the end of the session, Fuwa handed the treaty document to Obuchi, adding “Study this harder.”

The correct answer is that the ministries of International Trade and Industry and Science and Technology, both of which have the task of promoting nuclear power utilization, are simultaneously responsible for regulating the nuclear industry.

MITI officials insist, however, that this arrangement does not throw up any problems because different sections within the two ministries are individually responsible for regulation and promotion.

Later the same day, Obuchi told reporters that some of the questions fired at him during the debate were too detailed for a prime minister to be able to fully debate each of them at the drop of a hat.

“It is difficult for the prime minister to know every matter that is being dealt with by each ministry and agency,” he said. “If I didn’t need them, I wouldn’t have Cabinet ministers.”

Obuchi added that he will be more aggressive in the next session, promising to counterattack opposition party leaders. “I am not necessarily satisfied with today’s debate,” he added.

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