Japanese government undermines the independence of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

On July 20, Japanese government announced five members for the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (原子力規制委員会), scheduled to begin operating in September. The head of the group is Mr. Shunichi Tanaka, the former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission as well as the president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan. Both organizations have been the core in promoting nuclear energy in Japan.

While a few restrictions for members’ eligibility are set, they do not truly promote the neutrality of the commission. For example, the members are prohibited to have received more than 500,000 yen (about $4,000) a year from the nuclear industry or been board members or workers in the industry in last three years. However, this minor restriction does not really secure the independence of the agency.

In fact, Mr. Tanaka has been very much a part of the “nuclear power village” comprised of bureaucrats, scholars, and industry members to promote the nuclear energy in Japan. Another member of the commission, Mr. Toyoshi Fuketa, was reported to have received about 100,000 yen since 2003 from the Japan Atomic Power Company.

Starting September, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be established under Ministry of the Environment. The current administration keeps mentioning that the new commission will retain the level of independence. But as seen in the selection of its members, the neutrality or independence does not seem to be its priority.

The appointment of Mr. Tanaka and four commissioners has been suspended due to the leak of the information to Yomiuri, Nikkei, and NHK on July 20. The rule indicates that if the names of appointee are disclosed before the Diet, the Diet will not receive the administration’s appointment. So the current process has stopped.

Of course, the mishap in the procedure is not the major problem. The problem is that the current appointees already have vested interests in the “nuclear power village.”

The process to establish the independent agency has been one tug-of-war between the current administration/bureaucrats and the Liberal Democratic/New Komeito Party. The latter strongly demanded the agency be set up more in line with those found in the U.S., France, and Germany, which maintain a strong independence from government. Their effort brought some important changes in the final bill passed in the end of June.

The role of the regulatory commission is very important. One of the major reasons for the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi was a lack of the strong regulatory system in the nuclear industry. In the government, there were multiple regulatory agencies seeking their own interest. As for one, the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency belonged to Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, protecting, not regulating, the nuclear industry.

Unless the new regulatory industry is able to be the true watchdog of the nuclear industry, Japan is likely to face another Fukushima. The disaster at Fukushima Daiichi has contaminated the soil, water, and ocean, causing the great international and domestic damage. And we cannot afford that sort of crisis economically as well as spiritually.

Despite the concerned voices heard outside of the Prime Minister’s office, the current administration is determined to restart as many nuclear reactors as possible. Of course, there are limits as to what the citizens’ demonstrations can do to effect actual changes. That is why the regulatory agency’s role is vital to the safety and protection of the national interest.

Several nuclear plants are approaching their forty year limit. And yet, the current administration and bureaucrats are eager to create “exceptions” to continue operating these old reactors. For example, the Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency acknowledged the operation of the second reactor of Mihama Nuclear Power Plant, which will exceed its fortieth year on July 25. The decision should have been postponed until the start of the new regulatory commission.

There also has been a few talks over the possibility of active faults under the nuclear plants in Shika (Ishikawa Pref.) and Oi (Fukui Pref.). The case of Oi plant has been known before its infamous restart, but the administration went ahead with it anyway.

The establishment of the neutral and independent regulatory commission is crucial to the safe energy and nuclear usage in Japan. The establishment of a true regulatory agency has a greater implication.

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