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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

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Not good: Gray smoke rises March 21 from unit 3 of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. TEPCO/AP

Nuclear reform will be uphill slog

Reactor restart push seen conflicting with bid to create a true atomic watchdog

The Washington Post

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

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 collusive government-industry culture that thrived before the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear emergency.

The Cabinet's outline, released earlier this month, for creating a competent safety agency to replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency sets out several of the challenges. Too few people at the current agency know much about nuclear engineering, and agency officials parachute frequently into industry jobs, dissolving the border between regulator and operator.

No matter the structural changes, experts say, the government can't establish a muscular agency without taking aim at these problems. But attempts to do so will draw resistance from the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which still determines energy policies, and from politicians who favor the traditional model of government-private sector cooperation.

Already leaders in both the Democratic Party of Japan and the Liberal Democratic Party are pushing for a restart of the country's reactors, and Yoshihiko Noda, who won Monday's DPJ presidential race to replace Naoto Kan as prime minister, has shown Kan's reformist zeal. Critics fear that changes to the nuclear regulator will only go far enough to convince the public of improvements, but that they won't lead to a sweeping overhaul.

The government has already decided against creating an independent agency to enforce safety, akin to the nuclear watchdogs in the U.S. and France. Instead, the new agency will be 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 views as helping meet carbon dioxide 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 now directs the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies.

The new regulatory body, tentatively named the Nuclear Safety and Security Agency, also has a personnel problem. The bureaucratic tradition calls for senior officials to shuffle between jobs every two or three years, undercutting any attempt to build expertise. NISA's departing 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 existing NISA leaders during the current 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. He was soon reassigned.

The lower levels of the watchdog agency are populated either by people who don't know much about the nuclear industry or by those who used to work for it. Even in April, NISA hired an employee from a subsidiary of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima No. 1 facility, and promptly assigned him to the troubled plant.

METI official Shigeaki Koga said that those who don't have industry backgrounds often come to the agency as nuclear laymen; they receive their educations by going to the plants and receiving training from the 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, the Cabinet has called for a transformation of the "organizational culture" and suggested 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 the (U.S.) NRC and other regulatory bodies overseas to learn from them," Iida said.

For outsiders, Japan's nuclear watchdog mechanism has long been a target for criticism, but such criticism has rarely led to action. After a 2007 earthquake hit the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture, resulting in a radiation leak, the International Atomic Energy Agency advised that Japan separate NISA from METI, the promoter of 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 power utilities described NISA's efforts to manipulate public opinion at symposiums in 2006 and 2007; the agency tried to mobilize attendees to speak out in favor of nuclear power — a sign of the regulator's willingness to drown out antinuclear voices.

"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."

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