Oct. 26 is designated as Nuclear Energy Day to mark the startup of Japan’s first experimental nuclear-power reactor 39 years ago. Since then the nation’s nuclear energy development program has made spectacular advances. This year’s anniversary, however, is marred by a series of shocking revelations that power companies have covered up reactor troubles over an extended period of time.
Particularly disturbing is the fact that some of the defects, such as cracks in the reactor casing, have been discovered at the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, the leader of the nation’s nuclear-power industry. Those flaws, according to experts, are not serious enough to cause accidents. Nevertheless public confidence in nuclear safety has been badly shaken.
Moreover, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has been criticized for being too “friendly” toward the power companies. It has spent as long as two years investigating the plants in question — a delay that borders on negligence. In addition, the agency has been accused of giving Tepco an inside tip on the identity of a whistle blower.
The coverup scandals have dealt a further blow to the troubled pluthermal program designed to establish an efficient nuclear fuel cycle. First and foremost, concerns about nuclear safety must be erased. That requires reform of the safety regulatory system.
A variety of plans are under consideration, including establishment of strict inspection rules. In the past, reactor operation has continued even after flaws were discovered on the ground that they were not serious. From here on, minor defects, too, would be examined by rigorous standards, and operation would be maintained only when safety was confirmed. Additionally, power companies’ in-house checks would be replaced by “voluntary” government inspections, and their quality guarantees would be subject to official examination. Furthermore, three nuclear-energy foundations would be integrated into an independent administrative organization in charge of inspections.
Increased intervention seems unavoidable. Tepco, for instance, reportedly has continued to hide more than a dozen troubles, including potential law violations, over the past 10 years. However, the need for tighter inspections should not be used as an excuse for expanding bureaucratic control over the nuclear energy industry.
Ongoing efforts to bolster the safety regime are reassuring. The question is whether they will really succeed. Rumblings of discontent can be heard already. For example, Aomori Prefecture, home to a nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant, is calling for the separation of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry as a way to establish a more effective safety regulatory system.
In an open challenge to the central government, the prefectural governor, Mr. Morio Kimura, has said he may reject spent-fuel access to the reprocessing facility — a development that would hamper the operation of nuclear plants. The economy and industry minister, Mr. Takeo Hiranuma, has said he will “consider (the request) in earnest,” but ministry bureaucrats seem determined to maintain their regulatory grip.
Regulatory reform is likely to affect the Nuclear Safety Commission as well. The commission, an independent council, has five members and a staff of about 60. An affiliate of the Cabinet Office, it sets safety standards and guidelines. It also double-checks safety inspections conducted by government agencies.
There is a strong body of opinion in favor of strengthening the commission. Proponents say it should be reorganized into an independent administrative agency similar to nuclear energy safety regulatory commissions in countries such as the United States, Russia and Britain.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, meanwhile, has a head-office staff of about 110 and about 100 inspectors stationed at local offices. If a new independent safety organization is created through legislative revisions, the agency will be invested with more powers and functions — and the Nuclear Safety Commission will likely be weakened further.
Which body should be strengthened, the safety and inspection agency or the safety commission? Given the overriding need to secure nuclear safety, it probably makes sense to bolster both bodies. From the point of view of ensuring neutrality in safety regulation, however, it would be more sensible to reinforce the commission.
The overarching question is what can and should be done to restore public confidence in the safety of nuclear-power plants. Ultimately the future of the nation’s nuclear-energy program depends on how the government and power industry address this question.
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