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Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Time to give nuke watchdog teeth
Regulator lacks meaning under wing of industry advocate METI
A government report about the Fukushima No. 1 power plant crisis released June 7 mentions the need to review the way the nuclear power industry is regulated.
One of the main points of the report focuses on the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, a regulatory body that answers to the very same entity tasked with promoting nuclear power — the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan is calling for separating NISA from METI to ensure it can actually wield watchdog authority without the constraints of vested interests.
Established a decade ago to strengthen the regulatory system, NISA is now at a crossroads as Japan struggles to deal with the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Following are questions and answers about NISA:
What's the history of NISA?
The agency was established in 2001 as part of administrative reforms under the late Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who wanted to drastically restructure the government's various ministries and agencies.
NISA was formed by basically combining part of the nuclear regulatory section of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, which also answers to METI, and part of the now-defunct Science and Technology Agency, which was folded into the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.
NISA is supposedly independent of the energy agency, but in reality METI's influence is strong.
While NISA acts as a regulator for the nuclear power industry, it also monitors the safety of other industries, including electric power, explosives, gas and mining.
What role does NISA play?
Its job includes checking and approving utilities' plans to build or decommission nuclear power plants and carrying out regular safety tests at existing plants and monitoring management of radioactive waste.
It is also in charge of managing disaster-mitigation measures related to large radiation leaks.
Why does the DPJ-led administration want NISA spun off from METI?
The administration is responding to the International Atomic Energy Agency's call for Japan to create a more independent nuclear regulatory regime.
The IAEA sent a team of experts last month to Japan to examine what caused the accident and how the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. are handling the crisis.
The team submitted a report to the government saying Japan needs to overhaul its nuclear regulatory regime.
Japan should create a system that "should ensure that regulatory independence and clarity of roles are preserved in all circumstances in line with IAEA safety standards," the IAEA report says.
The international body gave Japan the same advice in 2007, when a major earthquake hit Tepco's huge Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture, sparking a fire, radiation leak and shutdown.
Other experts say it is wrong for METI, whose job is to promote nuclear power, and NISA, the regulator, to coexist under the same roof.
"METI's job is to promote nuclear energy, and it is hard to imagine that NISA can go against the ministry and implement regulation properly. So (NISA) itself does not really make sense," said Kunihiko Takeda, a professor at Chubu University's Institute of Science and Technology Research and an expert on energy policies.
Besides NISA, there is also the Nuclear Safety Commission, which also acts as a regulator, and the education ministry, which monitors radiation levels.
But their lines of responsibility are blurred.
How do NSC and NISA differ?
They are hard to differentiate at first glance. The NSC is much older than NISA.
The NSC, established in 1978 and now a part of the Cabinet Office, is composed of five full-time nuclear experts selected by the government. It also has special committee members in charge of specific safety issues.
The commission, which is headed by Haruki Madarame, a University of Tokyo professor, propagates a basic philosophy of nuclear safety and drafts regulatory guidelines, including seismic tolerances for nuclear power plants, so regulators can review the blueprints.
NISA is in charge of directly regulating plant operators and their activities, while the NSC watches over NISA to make sure it is doing its job as a regulator. This is known as the "double checking system."
Does NISA bear any responsibility for the Fukushima crisis?
NISA spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama admitted that it failed to properly regulate Tepco to ensure it was prepared for a tsunami like the one that struck on March 11.
"Although our regulation was implemented based on the NSC's guideline, which included the most recent knowledge, we could not (compel) Tepco to build enough measures to prevent the tsunami," said Nishiyama.
Looking at what further transpired, including the hydrogen explosions and ventilation delays, he said "there are things we should have done" to prevent them.
Chubu University's Takeda said NISA bears a grave responsibility because it approved Tepco's estimate that the Fukushima plant only needed to be ready for a 5.7-meter tsunami.
The giant tsunami that hit the nuclear plant on March 11 may have been as high as 22 meters.
What would happen if NISA was separated from METI?
Goshi Hosono, a special aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan in charge of handling the nuclear crisis, said the government is ready to separate NISA from METI but a specific vision for restructuring the regulatory system has not been formulated.
"After all, NISA's biggest problem is its independence," he said.
But Hosono also hinted that the restructuring will not be limited to NISA because there is still some debate on how best to incorporate some of the NSC's and the education ministry's nuclear energy roles into the new agency.
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