Ties remain tight between Atomic Energy Commission, nuclear industry

May 26, 2012

Officials are showing no signs of ending the cozy relationship that persists between the nuclear industry and safety regulators, despite rising criticism following last year's disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

In the latest uproar over the “nuclear village,” the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) was found to have revised a report that keeps alive the nuclear fuel recycling program after a closed-door meeting attended exclusively by the pro-nuclear camp.

The JAEC held an extraordinary meeting on May 25 and flatly dismissed allegations that the report was intentionally rewritten to favor specific operators or opinions.

JAEC Chairman Shunsuke Kondo told a news conference after the meeting that he thought the practice of holding meetings with electric power companies should continue.

"(Meetings with utilities) have certainly been effective for calculations and other purposes, but it should be thought over whether they should be held in the same manner as before," Kondo said.

The JAEC has held as many as 23 closed-door meetings since November, and Kondo attended four of them. The meetings gave electric power operators access to information, under Kondo's approval, over the heads of other JAEC commissioners.

The latest closed-door meeting was held on April 24, around the time a JAEC technical subcommittee was entering the final stage of discussions on the future of the nation’s nuclear fuel cycle policy.

The 30 or so participants at the meeting included JAEC Vice Chairman Tatsujiro Suzuki, a senior official of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. (JNFL), which operates a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, and a senior official of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.

Draft material distributed at the meeting asserted that "direct disposal of all spent fuel" was "more advantageous in terms of overall costs" than two other options presented--reprocessing all spent fuel and a combination of direct disposal and reprocessing.

"Direct disposal" means burial in the ground, and applying that method to all spent fuel would eliminate the need for a reprocessing plant.

But during the April 24 meeting, the senior JNFL official called for the continuation of the reprocessing plant operations.

In the subsequent JAEC subcommittee meeting held on May 8, the assessment had been revised to say that direct disposal of all spent fuel was "likely more advantageous" in economic terms. The weakened expression was more favorable for a continuation of the reprocessing plant operations.

Public trust in Japan’s nuclear industry has evaporated since the accident started at the Fukushima plant. The government is reviewing its energy policy to move the nation away from its dependence on nuclear energy, and it was under pressure to lay bare the cozy relations in the nuclear village.

The revelation that the JAEC, the nation's highest authority handling nuclear power, was standing on the side of nuclear energy proponents prompted criticism from lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

One former Cabinet member said a JAEC official should be summoned to the DPJ’s Policy Research Committee to explain what happened.

The Fukushima nuclear crisis led to an organizational revamp at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which had its director-general replaced, and the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan, which will be integrated with NISA into a new nuclear regulatory body.

But the JAEC structure has remained intact.

The practice of convening closed "hearings" and other sessions only with pro-nuclear companies and officials dates back to the days before the Fukushima accident, the JAEC secretariat said.

"(These closed meetings) were an occasion to ask for expert data and knowledge," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference on May 25. "I don't see any problem with it."

But Goshi Hosono, the environment minister who is in charge of the nation's nuclear power policy, indicated that he would consider reviewing the organizational setup, in which employees of electric power companies are sent on loan to the JAEC secretariat.

(This article was compiled from reports by Go Yamashita, Ryuta Koike and Jin Nishikawa.)

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