In Japan, new nuclear agency tests ability to reform

August 26, 2011

In a bid to restore public confidence, the Japanese government has unveiled plans to reform the country’s nuclear regulatory agency, separating it from the ministry in charge of promoting nuclear power.

That change is almost certain to be approved by parliament. But critics say it is only the first and easiest of many necessary reforms, and whether the additional changes are actually made will be a key test of Japan’s willingness to transform the cozy government-industry culture that thrived before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear emergency.

The cabinet’s outline for creating a competent safety agency, released this month, sets out several of the challenges. Too few people at the existing agency know much about nuclear engineering, and agency officials frequently parachute into industry jobs, dissolving the boundary between regulator and operator.

No matter the structural changes, experts say, Japan cannot establish a muscular safety agency without taking aim at those problems. But attempts to do so will draw resistance from the powerful industry agency, which determines the country’s energy policies, and from politicians who favor Japan’s traditional model of government-private sector cooperation.

Some leaders in both major parties are pushing to restart the country’s reactors, and no candidate to replace outgoing Prime Minister Naoto Kan has shown Kan’s reformist zeal. Critics fear that changes to the nuclear regulator will only go far enough to convince the public that improvements have been made — but that they won’t lead to a sweeping overhaul.

Japan has decided against creating an independent agency to enforce safety, akin to the nuclear watchdogs in the United States and France. Instead, the new agency will be placed under the jurisdiction of the Environment Ministry, where the government says it is better suited to communicate during a crisis under the guidance of a cabinet minister. The Environment Ministry, though, has a history of favoring nuclear power, which it sees as a tool for meeting carbon dioxide emissions targets.

“The most important thing is that the top officials at the agency or the director of the agency should be independent from politics,” said Tetsunari Iida, a former nuclear engineer who directs the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies.

The new regulatory body, tentatively named the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency (NSSA), also has a personnel problem. Japan’s bureaucratic tradition calls for senior officials to shuffle among jobs every two or three years, undercutting any attempt to build expertise. The current agency’s outgoing director general, Nobuaki Terasaka, has switched positions six times in the past decade, handling everything from the budget to the gas industry. He has an economics degree.

Among the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s leaders during the ongoing crisis, only one official, Koichiro Nakamura, who has a nuclear engineering degree from the University of Tokyo, warned publicly in the initial days of the crisis about the possibility of a meltdown. Nakamura’s remarks came on March 12, one day after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered a tsunami. He was soon reassigned.

The lower levels of Japan’s watchdog agency are populated by people who either don’t know much about the nuclear industry or used to work for it. In April, the safety agency hired an employee from a subsidiary of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Daiichi facility, and promptly assigned him to the troubled plant. Of 100 inspectors nationwide, the Mainichi newspaper reported, more than half once worked for the nuclear industry.

Those who lack industry backgrounds, said Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official Shigeaki Koga, often come to the agency as nuclear laymen. They are educated at the plants, where they are trained by operators.

“It’s a big national project” to build a new generation of experts, said Koga, a sharp critic of Japan’s resistance to reform. “One of the difficult tasks will be how to select the top officials and managers.”

In its outline for the new agency, Japan’s cabinet calls for a transformation of the “organizational culture” and suggests a “no-return rule” to prevent transfers from the regulation side to the industry side and vice versa. It also suggests the creation of a nuclear safety training academy.

But in the short term, the new agency will depend largely on the same officials now at NISA. “We will probably need to send people to NRC and other regulatory bodies overseas to learn from them,” Iida said, referring to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

For outsiders, Japan’s nuclear watchdog mechanism has long been a target of criticism. But the criticism has rarely led to action. After a 2007 earthquake hit the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, resulting in a radiation leak, the International Atomic Energy Agency advised Japan to separate NISA from the industrial ministry that promotes nuclear energy. The advice was ignored.

In the wake of the March 11 disaster, both NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission (a panel that audits and supervises NISA) have drawn criticism internationally for their failure to push for tsunami preparedness at the nuclear plants.

More recently, officials at two Japanese power companies described NISA’s efforts to manipulate public opinion at symposiums in 2006 and 2007; the agency tried to mobilize attendees to speak in favor of nuclear power — a sign of the regulator’s willingness to drown out opposition voices.

News accounts of the manipulation added to the headaches for a government that has just 15 of its 54 reactors online. Under existing guidelines that call for reactors to be suspended every 13 months for checkups, Japan faces a situation in which all of its reactors could be shut down by April, just as the new agency launches. That’s because Japan has yet to win approval from local communities for the restarting of its idled reactors, which will be given stress tests to gauge their safety.

“The government wants to reactivate the reactors no matter what,” Koga said. “And the underlying motivation for this new agency is to create an atmosphere to restart the reactors.”

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.

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