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Friday, Oct. 5, 2012

Government tries to duck reactor-restart decisions

Fujimura hints decision rests with new body


Staff writer

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura suggested Thursday that the central government does not have the ultimate say, or responsibility, in reactivating nuclear reactors, triggering confusion over who is in charge of making the decision.

At a news conference, Fujimura repeatedly stressed that the new Nuclear Regulation Authority is in charge of assessing the safety of reactors and that power companies are only tasked with explaining reactor restarts to host municipalities and seeking their consent.

But Fujimura refused to clarify the government's precise role in the process, saying only that once the safety of a reactor has been confirmed by the NRA, it will be brought back online.

"As I have repeatedly stated, confirming the safety of reactors is the most important thing when considering a reactivation, and the NRA is in charge of making a decision over their safety as an independent entity," Fujimura said. "The government has decided to utilize nuclear reactors that have been confirmed as a safe source of power."

But Fujimura repeatedly refused to give a straight answer when asked whether the government is ultimately responsible for approving reactor restarts, reiterating that units judged to be safe would be "used as a source of energy."

"In terms of giving approval, that duty has shifted from the trade minister and the (now-defunct) Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to the regulatory committee that is now in charge of authorizing" reactor restarts, Fujimura said, dumping the responsibility squarely on the NRA.

But this view was flatly contradicted by the NRA just a day before, when its new head, Shunichi Tanaka, stated that its responsibility is to scientifically assess the safety of nuclear reactors and that ultimate responsibility to authorize restarts does not lie with the nuclear watchdog.

Restarting reactors "is a major decision that must be made by somebody, and I believe that our safety assessment plays an important role in making that judgement," Tanaka said. "But to reactivate the reactors, there are various issues to consider, including gaining permission from local residents and municipal officials, and that is beyond the bounds of our authority."

After the Great East Japan Earthquake triggered the Fukushima meltdowns, all of Japan's commercial reactors were gradually brought to a halt by May.

In June, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda authorized the restarts of two units at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture amid widespread public outrage. After that chastening experience, it now appears the government is trying to wriggle its way out of approving any more reactivations and to find some other entity to which it can pass the buck.

During a news conference Sept. 21, Noda said the NRA would play a "leading role" in resuming operations at nuclear plants. Trade minister Yukio Edano also said last week that reactors would be restarted once the NRA confirms their safety and host municipalities have given their blessing, suggesting the central government would play no role in the final decision.

Last month, the government adopted a new energy policy that aims to completely abolish nuclear power in the 2030s. But depending on future energy demand, the government may eventually decide that not all idled reactors will need to be brought back online. Fujimura, however, insisted that such a decision will not be made in the short term.

"It might be a few years from now, but naturally there might come a time to review energy demand if other issues surface, including renewable energies," he said.



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