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Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012
Nuke watchdog a 'cosmetic' change
New regulatory agency faulted for ties to discredited predecessor
Created to replace a nuclear regulatory system discredited by the Fukushima disaster, the new five-member Nuclear Regulation Authority, launched Wednesday, is already being faulted as a cosmetic change.
Experts note that most of the employees at the NRA's secretariat are the same bureaucrats who were working at the old regulatory authority, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
Nothing has been done, they said, to dismantle the old bureaucratic culture that blurred the lines of responsibility and made regulators who lacked independence and nuclear expertise reluctant to force utilities to toe the line.
For example, a new regulation forbidding personnel from returning to their original ministries to keep them focused on the new entity has been made toothless by a five-year moratorium.
What's needed to change the culture, they said, are outside pressures to monitor the new system, and government-backed programs, such as those providing overseas training, to keep bureaucrats motivated.
"The most important point is that the secretariat that supports the highly independent five-member commission must have independence and expertise," said Shuya Nomura, a professor at the Chuo Law School who was a member of the Diet panel that probed the causes of the Fukushima No. 1 triple meltdown crisis.
In its final report released in July, the Diet panel said that NISA failed to enforce regulations because the utilities, with their greater nuclear expertise, were able to get the upper hand, a situation known as "regulatory capture."
As a part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which was promoting nuclear power, NISA's independence was always in shaky, and it finally came under heavy fire for that.
To correct the problem, the new regulatory body, which has a staff of about 480, including more than 300 from NISA, will operate as an agency under the Environment Ministry to avoid the influence of the ministries tasked with promoting nuclear power, and to support a new highly autonomous five-member commission.
Nevertheless, the commission's power and autonomy are compromised because "the secretariat under the commission that handles actual work is still pretty much the same as NISA, which means we can't really expect the culture to be changed," said Hiroshi Tasaka, who was a special adviser to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and helped deal with the Fukushima disaster.
Thus the public's focus on the commission is misguided, the experts said. Although antinuclear activists claim that some of the commissioners, including Chairman Shunichi Tanaka, former vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, are unqualified to run an independent watchdog because of their previous ties to the nuclear industry, the key is the secretariat. Simply separating a regulatory section from METI will not solve the problem because the government has taken a lax stance on personnel oversight.
In general, METI bureaucrats are reassigned every few years, mainly based on seniority, and often shuttle between the nuclear promotion and regulation sections. Consequently, they would usually avoid boldly changing the policies of their predecessors.
Because METI's mission was to promote nuclear power, there was no incentive to place its best people at NISA to tighten regulations, according to Nomura of Chuo Law School.
While experts at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission are qualified to operate reactors, Kenkichi Hirose, former head of NISA, told the Diet panel that officials were kept busy with paperwork, Nomura said.
Although the government is set to bar bureaucrats from returning to their ministries, loopholes in the rule remain, the experts warned. For example, a moratorium has been placed on that rule for the first five years of the new agency's debut, allowing bureaucrats to go back to their ministries if they choose.
"The next five years will be critically important to grow a new regulatory culture," so the moratorium should not be applied so that they will focus on their job, said Tasaka, a professor of business at Tama University who has a doctorate in nuclear engineering.
The secretariat needs to be a body that people will want to work for, said Nomura, citing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as an example of a place considered prestigious by U.S. federal workers.
Furthermore, it's necessary to have outsiders scrutinize the performance of the new regulatory body, Tasaka said. For instance, an expert from overseas, such as a former NRC member, should be included to play a role similar to that of an outside director at a private firm. However, doing this may require changing the law to allow foreigners to take such a position.
The Diet should also form a committee to check the NRA and its secretariat, Tasaka said.
"It requires tremendous effort to reform an institutional culture whether it's a private firm or public organization . . . It must have outside pressure," said Tasaka.