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.