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Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012
New atomic regulator launches, vowing no more disasters
The government launched a new nuclear regulatory body Wednesday that vowed never to let a disaster like the Fukushima triple meltdown occur again.
The new body — the Nuclear Regulation Authority — has been imbued with a high level of independence and authority. But it has a lot of work to do to win back the public's trust in nuclear power regulation after the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
"We are starting this new regulatory body under very difficult circumstances," Shunichi Tanaka, head of the five-member commission, said during its first meeting.
"Our mission is to protect people's lives and their properties. This means we will never, ever let an accident like Fukushima happen again," said Tanaka, a physicist and former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, a policy-drafting body of the government.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the NRA's predecessor, was heavily criticized for its lack of expertise and independence in regulating the utilities because it was part of the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry, which for decades had been tasked with promoting nuclear power.
One of the major criticisms of NISA was that it failed to get Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, to take the measures needed to reduce the risk of a large tsunami knocking out power at the plant, even though the risks had been raised before the major earthquake and ensuing tsunami crippled it on March 11, 2011.
The NRA, along with its secretariat consisting of about 480 employees, has been established as an outside agency under the environment ministry separate from METI. The NRA has also been given "article 3 commission" status, which gives the body a greater independence from politics to the extent that even the prime minister cannot easily change commission members.
The secretariat employees are mostly from NISA, while others are from the science ministry, land ministry and the Cabinet Office.
Under the previous regulatory system, nuclear-related matters were handled not only by NISA but also by other ministries, which resulted in sectionalism. Now, the NRA and its secretariat will handle all nuclear-related matters, including drafting safety standards for reactors, deciding whether to restart idled reactors and decommissioning the crippled Fukushima plant.
One of the most pressing tasks for the NRA will be to draw up new safety standards that will be applied in reactivating reactors and examining possible active faults underneath some plants.
Currently, only two reactors — both at the Oi plant in Fukui Prefecture — are in operation out of the nation's 50 reactors. Most have been halted for regular checkups and have not been restarted due to safety concerns after the Fukushima disaster.
The NRA will also be in charge of deciding whether to allow reactors to operate after they have run for 40 years. The government has said it will not allow utilities to operate reactors more than 40 years in principle, which is a key policy for the government's plan of zero-reliance on nuclear energy.