Utilities were unwilling to voluntarily improve safety at their nuclear plants before the Fukushima crisis erupted, but the chairman of the Japan Nuclear Safety Institute, an entity aimed at monitoring efforts by power firms to improve atomic safety, is determined to change that mindset.

“Overseas experts have pointed this out before, but nuclear power station operators and industry regulators in Japan thought they had ensured safety simply by following regulations,” said Shojiro Matsuura, who headed the Cabinet Office’s now-defunct Nuclear Safety Commission before taking the institute’s reins.

Panels set up to investigate the causes of the Fukushima No. 1 plant meltdowns found that the existing regulations were deeply inadequate.

“Because of that mindset, operators did not really make voluntary efforts to improve safety beyond what was required. I think this was the indirect cause of the Fukushima disaster, and it has to change fundamentally,” Matsuura said in an interview with The Japan Times.

The goal of JNSI, which was launched in November to facilitate voluntary moves to improve safety measures by the nine utilities and other operators of atomic energy facilities, is to alter that entrenched culture, according to Matsuura. The Tokyo-based institute is funded by the regional utilities, and has about 140 employees.

JNSI assesses power companies’ nuclear plants and safety, and offers advice on how they can reinforce existing measures. But since more safety entails more expenditures, doubts remain whether a utilities-funded entity has the power to enforce and implement additional safety steps it recommends.

In light of the way the Fukushima meltdowns exposed the ill-preparedness of plant operators for disasters of such severity, JNSI will mainly focus on what the utilities are working on to boost the preparedness in extreme emergencies, Matsuura said.

Atomic plant operators tried a similar approach by establishing the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute in 2005, a predecessor of JNSI whose target was also to bolster safety. The body was modeled after the U.S.-based Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), which was created after the Three Mile Island disaster to encourage more voluntary safety efforts by American atomic plant operators.

“But the utilities weren’t really committed” to improving nuclear safety with the technology institute, Matsuura said.

Although it reviewed safety at nuclear facilities and offered advice, the utilities did not act on it, Matsuura said, adding the entity failed to bring the presidents of power companies onboard.

To prevent JNSI from suffering a similar fate, Matsuura said the organization may introduce a rating system that the INPO currently uses in the U.S., so as to pressure utilities.

JNSI will hold regular meetings with the presidents of power firms, when Matsuura will directly convey the institute’s reviews of their plants — something its predecessor body failed to do. “I am not from the energy industry, so I don’t need to show consideration toward anyone. There is nothing I won’t hesitate to say,” said Matsuura.

Although it is still uncertain if the institute will work out, experts have repeatedly pointed to the crucial need to create an organization modeled on the INPO, which has successfully facilitated voluntary safety efforts by U.S. utilities.

After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, plant operators in the United States mutually agreed on the need to pursue higher levels of safety, Richard Meserve, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said during a meeting with the Nuclear Regulation Authority in December.

INPO was thus founded, and holds an annual private meeting with the CEOs of nuclear plant operators in which those with poor performance records have to explain themselves, according to Meserve. “I can assure you there is no chief executive who wants to be in that position, being embarrassed in front of all his colleagues,” he said.

Just like the U.S. gatherings, Matsuura said the JNSI sessions with utility and power firm presidents will be closed to the public and details won’t be disclosed. The utilities have the responsibility to explain their attempts to enhance safety and try to win the public’s trust, he explained.

As JNSI so far has held just a single meeting with utility presidents, Matsuura said it will take more time to determine how far the mindset of atomic plant operators has really changed.

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