VIENNA - Japan faces renewed pressure this week from the International Atomic Energy Agency to rethink its nuclear safety regulatory system, which has been attacked for allowing overly close ties between the watchdog agency and the ministry promoting atomic power.
Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaieda reiterated the government’s plan to separate the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency from METI at a high-level IAEA conference in Vienna Monday, but doubts linger whether the painful experience of the Fukushima nuclear crisis will lead to the creation of a more reliable regulatory system.
Experts have said a change in organizational structure alone will hardly be enough, while people close to the nuclear business suggest it may not be easy to break the often-criticized ties between METI and the entities that oversee nuclear power plant safety.
The government appears serious about giving more independence to NISA, because it acknowledged that the current regulatory system involving NISA and other entities failed to “promptly respond to such a large-scale nuclear accident.”
The pressure on Japan to deal with the issue is growing from the international community, with IAEA chief Yukiya Amano stressing at the outset of this week’s five-day IAEA ministerial meeting on nuclear safety that regulators must be “genuinely independent.”
In his speech, Amano made a rare announcement by saying the U.N. nuclear watchdog would like to hold a regulatory review mission in Japan next year as a followup to the 2007 mission, although the IAEA normally waits until it receives a country’s consent, according to a NISA official.
From the time NISA was formed as a part of METI in 2001 during a major reorganization of government ministries, doubts about its independence have repeatedly been voiced both in Japan and by the IAEA.
An IAEA report in 2007 said that responsibilities of various government entities involved in nuclear safety, such as NISA and another oversight body, the Nuclear Safety Commission, “seem intertwined” and recommended that the role of NISA and the NSC be “clarified,” especially in producing safety guidelines. But substantial actions were not taken in response to the advice.
Under the current system, NISA is tasked with ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants and issues licenses for installation of the plants after examining the site and structure. The NSC, part of the Cabinet Office, double-checks NISA’s work and makes recommendations to regulatory bodies in the name of the prime minister.
NISA has called itself a “special institution” effectively independent from METI, but critics have often pointed to the closeness of the two organizations, as demonstrated by the fact that NISA Director General Nobuaki Terasaka was a longtime METI bureaucrat and current Vice METI Minister Kazuo Matsunaga is a former NISA chief.
The ministry has also apparently shared cozy ties with utilities, with a recent survey finding that over the past 50 years roughly 70 former elite bureaucrats were given executive posts in electricity suppliers after retiring from METI or its precursor, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
“It is a clear international trend to separate the regulator and the promoter (of nuclear energy), but Japan has lagged behind,” said Hideyuki Ban, codirector of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, an antinuclear power group.
He said that it would be “a very good thing” if the government would finally move ahead with separating NISA from the ministry and that further weight was added to the plan when Kaieda made regulatory reform an “international pledge” by speaking about it during the IAEA ministerial meeting.
Kaieda bluntly admitted during a news conference in Vienna that Japan failed to “appropriately make use of the IAEA’s advice” in relation to Japan’s regulatory system and that it was “extremely regrettable” that NISA was not separated earlier.
The minister also said 2012, when the IAEA is scheduled to conduct a review mission, would be “one target date” for carrying out the envisioned reform.
But Hideaki Shiroyama, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in nuclear regulation, stressed that besides being “independent of something,” it is important to secure enough competent regulators for the envisioned unified regulatory entity.
Noting that people who have expertise on nuclear power in Japan usually have worked at nuclear reactor makers or utilities, Shiroyama said: “Being a technician and looking at the overall situation as a regulator requires a different type of ability.
“We have to think about developing regulators, the career patterns for them and to create an environment in which they can work with pride. That’s going to be the big challenge in the future.”
Meanwhile, some people well versed in the nuclear industry are skeptical that the safety regulatory system will ever truly be reformed.
A stronger regulatory framework could cause a backlash from utilities, said a 56-year-old engineer who works at a company making products used for reactors. “I think it is difficult to create an effective system because it is a matter of conflicts of interests.”
Nuke dependence to lessen
National policy minister Koichiro Genba said Wednesday that Japan will gradually reduce its dependence on atomic power generation amid the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
“We aim to become the world’s front-runner in such areas as energy efficiency and renewable energies,” Genba said at the kickoff of a ministerial meeting to discuss the country’s long-term energy and environmental policies.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan instructed the ministers to study the enhanced use of natural gas as well as solar power and other renewable energies as an alternative to nuclear power generation.
Genba added, however, that in the shorter term, the currently idled atomic power plants should restart operations after regular safety checkups are completed and help ease the negative impact on corporate activities from electricity supply shortages as a result of the March 11 disaster.