Government wants legal force over utilities

Nuke regulators get teeth via bills


Staff Writer

The government wants to legally compel nuclear plant operators to take every measure possible to prevent a crisis like the one that occurred at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 power plant and follow the latest safety steps when reactor standards are changed, Environment Minister Goshi Hosono said Friday.

The government also plans to limit reactors to 40 years of service, but Hosono said there may be exceptions if safety requirements are met.

The new conditions will be included in bills to revise laws on the regulation of reactors and nuclear fuel to be submitted to the Diet this month.

The government will also submit a bill to establish a new nuclear regulatory authority under the Environment Ministry, with April targeted as the launch date.

Under current regulations, the regulatory body can order utilities to adopt the latest safety measures, but such an order is not legally binding. The proposed changes would make such orders obligatory and carry the threat of shutdown in the event of noncompliance.

Currently, it is up to utilities to prepare for severe crises. But in order to prevent core meltdowns and radioactive fallout even when earthquakes or tsunami beyond expectations trigger severe events, the new regulations will legally compel utilities to come up with measures that include ensuring the availability of multiple power and coolant sources, said Hosono.

On the lifespan of reactors, the government is still drafting the bills but will likely set rules for checking the conditions at each facility and the given utility’s technical ability to maintain operations before approving extensions beyond 40 years.

Officials in charge of drafting the new regulations said the government decided to set the 40-year limit based on various factors. For instance, pressure vessels wear out to a certain degree after 40 years. Also, the U.S. applies the 40-year rule and if plant operators wish to run reactors longer, they must submit a request and undergo safety checks.

Reactors 1, 2 and 3 at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, all of which experienced meltdowns in March, began operating in 1971, 1974 and 1976.

The government also plans to strengthen the independence of regulators, as the Fukushima crisis underscored how ineffective the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s actions were.

NISA is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which is the main government organ for promoting nuclear power.

The coexistence of the promotion and regulatory bodies under the same roof has long been criticized.

The government plans to separate the regulatory body and place it under the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry.

An interim report recently disclosed by the third-party panel investigating the causes of the Fukushima crisis pointed out the ineffectiveness of NISA officials during the initial stages of the event.

For instance, they didn’t try harder to gather information from Tepco about the Fukushima No. 1 situation even though they suspected the utility was slow in providing updates.