Japan’s nuclear regulator has had a major revamp in the two years since lax safety standards contributed to the catastrophic nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, discrediting it in the eyes of the public.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which used to operate under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — whose goal had been to promote and expand the use of atomic energy — was abolished and the Nuclear Regulation Authority established last September under the Environment Ministry, creating a more independent watchdog to oversee the nuclear industry and to avoid its predecessor’s cozy ties with it.

The NRA is currently finalizing new, stricter safety standards that are to take effect in July.

“We will never allow the myth about the safety of nuclear power (that permitted utilities to get away with feeble standards for decades) to be resurrected. That’s one of the most important lessons from the Fukushima disaster,” Toyoshi Fuketa, one of the five NRA commissioners, stressed during a symposium Feb. 17 on the new safety criteria.

Yet the question remains: Has Japan really learned anything from the March 2011 Fukushima meltdowns following its blase attitude toward the dangers of atomic power, and has the mindset of nuclear plant operators and regulators been significantly altered?

Considering the tough stance adopted so far by the NRA — to a degree — experts say the new regulator seems to be learning from the three core meltdowns triggered at the Fukushima No. 1 plant by the 2011 quake-tsunami.

“It was problematic that the nuclear regulatory and promotional bodies (NISA and METI) existed under the same roof,” said Shuya Nomura, a professor at Chuo University’s law school and a member of a Diet panel that investigated the Fukushima crisis. “In that sense, the NRA has been doing its job with a greater commitment to safety.”

Prior to the 3/11 natural calamities, NISA’s safety standards were based on the now incredulous assumption that severe incidents, including core meltdowns, would never occur at any of the nation’s atomic power stations. As a result, the hapless entity lacked any plans to handle major nuclear emergencies.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. was equally ill-prepared for the Fukushima No. 1 calamity, resulting in the facility’s wrecked reactors spewing massive amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and contaminating large swaths of the Tohoku region and the Pacific Ocean. Along with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, it was one of the world’s worst nuclear plant catastrophes.

The outline of the new NRA safety standards will thus focus to a far greater extent on measures to be taken in the event of disasters of a similar magnitude, and will also implement stricter safety assessments for potentially lethal earthquakes, tsunami and possibly active faults running beneath atomic plants.

In addition, the nine regional utilities and other operators of nuclear plants will be required to install filtered ventilation systems that can drastically lower the amount of radioactive fallout if excessive pressure inside a reactor has to be relieved via a discharge into the atmosphere. And to counter possible terrorist attacks, such as an aircraft intentionally crashing into a nuclear facility, power companies will have to erect new structures about 100 meters from reactor buildings so engineers can remotely cool any units targeted.

But although nuclear plant operators will have to construct new facilities to increase safety levels, experts warn the new regulations rely too heavily on new structures and equipment.

“Ultimately, (averting or resolving another crisis) boils down to the management of trained workers and how effectively they respond as a team to a critical situation,” University of Tokyo professor Koji Okamoto told a symposium Feb. 27, criticizing the NRA for not focusing on enhancing the preparedness of nuclear engineers.

Still, each power company will have to spend billions of yen to comply with the new regulations. According to a Kyodo News survey, the overall cost of implementing the NRA’s planned measures is estimated at around ¥1 trillion, at the very minimum.

“We are not taking into consideration how much it will cost atomic plant operators,” NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka stated in a news conference Jan. 30. “Some power firms could give up on restarting their reactors (because of the prohibitive costs).”

The NRA’s hardline stance compared with its predecessor can also be seen in its investigations of active faults running directly beneath certain nuclear plants and reactor buildings.

The watchdog has said faults under the Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture and the Higashidori power station in Aomori Prefecture are most likely active. This judgement has effectively doomed reactor 2 at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga complex to the scrap heap, while Tohoku Electric Power Co. will also have a hard time bolstering safety measures to gain approval to resume operations at its Higashidori facility.

However, doubts persist as to whether the new regulator marks a radical departure from NISA, and, crucially, whether it will prioritize the safety — rather than the promotion — of nuclear power.

Referring to the NRA’s planned moratorium on the introduction of certain safety measures, including the new safety buildings for engineers, Nomura of Chuo University remarked that it may still be going easy on the power companies. NRA Commissioner Fuketa has said it will take years to carry out all of the measures to be introduced under the new safety framework, and noted that the longer reactors remain idle, the riskier it becomes to bring them back online.

“It seems the NRA is giving some consideration to the industry’s hopes of restarting reactors (at an early date),” Nomura said.

He further questioned whether NRA officials have completely eliminated NISA’s ingrained culture of compliance with the atomic industry, in which operators and regulators effectively worked hand-in-hand, for instance by huddling behind closed doors. One such notable example already took place, when Tetsuo Nayuki, one of the most senior officials in the NRA secretariat, was sacked in February for leaking a report on the probably active fault beneath the Tsuruga plant to Japan Atomic Power officials, before the document’s official release.

Internal NRA regulations ban its officials from meeting on their own with representatives of atomic plant operators, in an effort to strengthen transparency, yet Nayuki was found to have held eight solo rendezvous with officials from Japan Atomic Power.

“This is the traditional culture in the nuclear industry that we urged the new regulatory body to change,” said Nomura.

This is easier said than done, however. As most of the NRA secretariat’s 454 employees used to work for NISA, the previous organizational culture will be hard to replace, Nomura pointed out.

Even a senior official in the NRA secretariat admitted this is the case.

“I understand that a cultural realignment is not something that can be done overnight. . . . I feel that (the leaked report) really indicates” the difficulties we face in this respect, said Gyo Sato, director of the NRA secretariat’s public affairs division.

To complicate matters, communicating closely with power plant operators is essential for the NRA, but at the same time it cannot allow itself to get too cozy with them, said Sato, a former NISA bureaucrat, revealing the watchdog is still trying to work out an appropriate form of contact with industry officials.

Sato did, however, add that the new organizational structure seems to be working better than in the days of NISA, when important decisions had to be approved by the industry minister because the entity was under METI. And since the minister was not a nuclear expert, bureaucrats’ decisions were basically just rubber-stamped.

In contrast, the five NRA commissioners are all experts in nuclear energy, so they can make quicker independent decisions and exercise more direct leadership.

However, while stressing that NRA officials are highly motivated, given that the body originated from the nation’s worst nuclear disaster, Sato conceded it still needs to come up with programs to boost the expertise of officials in its secretariat. The campaign has yet to commence because the watchdog has been swamped since its launch less than six months ago, Sato added.

In his days as a NISA bureaucrat, Sato admitted he found it difficult to strike a balance between METI’s energy policy, which was based on a vast expansion of atomic plants, and the need to ensure the safety of existing nuclear facilities. But now that he no longer under METI and has no intention of going back, “my focus is solely on safety,” Sato said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.