IAEA review spurs Japan nuclear regulators to bolster safety regimen, look to U.S. for training

AP, Staff Report

The Nuclear Regulation Authority says it will revise laws, nearly double inspection staff and send some inspectors to the United States for training to address insufficiencies cited by International Atomic Energy Agency experts.

The NRA announced the plans Monday in response to an IAEA evaluation of Japan’s nuclear safety regulations since the 2011 Fukushima crisis. The report was submitted to the government last week.

Japan largely ignored an IAEA review in 2008 that concluded that its inspection system was inadequate. Three years later, three reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 power station suffered meltdowns after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami knocked out their cooling systems.

A series of investigations have blamed safety complacency, inadequate crisis management skills, a failure to keep up with international safety standards, and collusion between regulators and the nuclear industry as the main contributing causes of the disaster.

The latest IAEA review, its first since the NRA was established in 2012, was conducted in January. It said that even though Japan has adopted stricter safety requirement for nuclear plant operators, inspections are reactive, inflexible and lacking free access.

While the 1,000 U.S. inspectors have two years of training, Japan’s 150 staff members receive a two-week course.

The NRA plans to enact laws in 2020 to achieve the IAEA’s recommendations.

The IAEA noted that the NRA has made efforts to increase its transparency and independence.

The NRA commissioners met Monday and decided to give inspectors greater discretion and free access to data, equipment and facilities.

Current on-site checks have largely become a choreographed routine. Inspectors’ requests for access to data and equipment outside of regular quarterly inspections are not mandatory, and there is no penalty for plant operators that fail to meet safety requirements. Inspections also tend to be limited to a checklist of minimum requirements.

The IAEA report came as nuclear safety concerns increased among the public following the series of powerful earthquakes that hit this month in Kyushu.

The authority plans to revise laws next year and enact them in 2020 to implement the IAEA’s recommendations, officials said Monday.

The authority also said it would increase the size and competency of its staff. The IAEA urged Japan to develop training programs and step up safety research and cooperation with organizations inside and outside the country.

Japan plans to send five inspectors to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year for training in nuclear safety inspections. The trainees will be sent to NRC regional offices and its technical training center in Tennessee, according to Shuichi Kaneko, an NRA official.

“We look to the U.S. as a model,” he said. “We are finally beginning to catch up, though a framework is not there yet.”

Kaneko said on-site inspections at each plant in the U.S. average 2,000 hours a year, compared with 168 hours in Japan.

The authority plans to start hiring more staff next spring and eventually increase its staff by at least 100 to adapt to increased inspection needs, Kaneko said. Theoretically, to match U.S. safety inspection levels, Japan would need at least 250 inspectors.