With the nuclear-hazard coverup scandal continuing to swirl around Tokyo Electric Power Co., two advisory panels set up by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are stepping up their efforts to douse the controversy.

But experts say the task at hand — to help the government and utilities regain public trust and put Japan’s nuclear power policy back on track — presents a significant hurdle.

On Friday, one of the panels announced a final draft of its interim report. It calls on METI’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency to set up a system to smoothly handle alleged accusations about trouble at nuclear plants.

The suggestion takes aim at the fact that the agency took more than two years to investigate and disclose Tepco’s falsification of 29 voluntary inspections.

The second committee will finalize a proposal next week for the government to audit utility firms’ voluntary checks as well as set up standards for allowable reactor defects.

Based on these proposals, METI plans to submit bills to revise laws governing nuclear plants to the next extraordinary Diet session, slated to begin in October.

Even with these proposals, it will take a long time to persuade local residents to support nuclear power, said Koichi Okamoto, a social psychology professor at Toyo Eiwa University, who serves as a member of one of METI’s advisory panels.

“The shock caused by the nuclear scandal is huge because it involves the largest utility, which people expected to have high standards,” he said.

Yasuhiro Fujii, director of Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Research Laboratory for Nuclear Reactors, also urged the government to implement proposed preventive measures.

“It is natural that (minor) troubles happen (at nuclear plants), so the system should be changed to handle them appropriately,” he said. “With the establishment of allowable defect standards, people will be able to learn more about the reality of nuclear plant operations.”

The Tepco scandal broke Aug. 29, when the agency disclosed that the utility falsified its voluntary inspection reports of damage and repairs at its three plants between 1986 and 2001. In addition, Chubu Electric Power Co. and Tohoku Electric Power Co. recently admitted similar coverups at their plants.

Fueled by public anger, the revelations are likely to deal a severe blow to the promotion of pluthermal energy, a core component of the nation’s nuclear policy.

The pluthermal project is part of efforts to promote nuclear recycling, secure stable energy supplies and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The plan involves using uranium-plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, obtained from spent nuclear fuel, at light reactors.

The operators of the country’s 52 nuclear reactors, which supply one-third of the nation’s electricity, currently plan to introduce the pluthermal program to 16 to 18 reactors by 2010, but this is likely to be delayed.

Niigata Gov. Ikuo Hirayama announced his decision earlier this month to scrap Tepco’s pluthermal plan in the Kashiwazaki Kariwa plant despite approval by three local governments in the prefecture.

Fukushima Gov. Eisaku Sato made a similar decision Thursday to can the prefecture’s 1998 approval of Tepco’s pluthermal plan, saying the government failed to establish a system to ensure the safety of nuclear power generation even after a series of nuclear-related scandals.

In 1999, for example, the nation’s worst nuclear accident occurred at JCO Co.’s uranium processing facility in Ibaraki Prefecture. Two people were left dead.

Kansai Electric Power Co.’s pluthermal plan was stalled the same year due to a British firm’s falsification of data related to MOX fuel shipped to Kepco’s Takahama plant in Fukui Prefecture.

The central government, meanwhile, remains adamant.

“(The government) doesn’t need to change the basic line (of its energy policy),” said METI Vice Minister Seiji Murata. “Considering Japan’s poor energy resources and the fact that the project is a viable solution to environmental problems, we will pursue the policy.”

If the pluthermal project stalls for a significant length of time, the government is likely to face a serious problem.

Haruki Madarame, a nuclear engineering professor at University of Tokyo, said that in such a case, the government may need to find ways to deal with increasing volume of spent fuel.

“Japan has no choice but to depend on nuclear power generation (as a major energy resource) in the 21st century,” he said.

“Increasing storage for spent nuclear fuel is an option that enables one to promote the pluthermal project.”

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