Parties leave open operating limits for nuclear reactors

June 14, 2012

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

The ruling and opposition parties on June 14 agreed on legislation to create a new nuclear regulatory commission with greater independence from the government, but they left ambiguous the maximum operational life of reactors.

The Noda Cabinet's original nuclear safety reform bills said reactors should be decommissioned after 40 years in service, although extensions of up to 20 years may be granted in exceptional cases. That provision followed a similar setup in the United States.

However, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party criticized the provision, arguing that it is unreasonable to impose a flat limit of 40 years.

The new legislation will say that the operational life of reactors will be limited, in principle, to 40 years, but will include a caveat saying that the new regulatory commission, upon inauguration, should "promptly review" the 40-year provision.

The commission is expected to be inaugurated by the end of September.

Under the current setup, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency inspects the safety of nuclear reactors 30 years after they are first put online and may grant extensions every 10 years.

The agreement on the new legislation was reached between Yoshito Sengoku, acting chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's Policy Research Committee; Yoshimasa Hayashi, a deputy chairman of the LDP's Policy Research Council; and Tetsuo Saito, acting secretary-general of New Komeito, a smaller opposition party.

The agreed-upon legislation is based on a draft produced by the LDP and New Komeito. Instead of amending the legislation submitted by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his Cabinet, lawmakers will submit a separate set of bills to the Diet on the basis of the three-party agreement.

The Lower House is expected to pass the legislation as early as June 15 for enactment before the current Diet session closes on June 21.

“I don't believe this will be enough for the public to have a surefire sense of safety, but we did achieve something," Sengoku told reporters following the talks.

The bills include the abolition of NISA, a regulatory body under the umbrella of the industry ministry, which has been promoting the use of nuclear energy. NISA’s replacement will be created on the basis of lessons learned from last year's disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The new commission will also have a high degree of independence from the Cabinet under Article 3 of the National Government Organization Law.

The prime minister will have limited command over the commission during emergencies, according to the legislation.

"The regulatory commission's judgments based on technical knowledge and expertise are not subject to (the prime minister's command)," the agreed-upon text says.

The appointment of five expert members of the commission will require Diet approval.

The commission will be tasked with drawing up new safety standards for nuclear reactors that will be reactivated following the planned restarts of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors of the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.

A new nuclear regulatory agency will be created to serve as a secretariat for the commission.

The three parties also agreed to set up a nuclear disaster prevention council that will be in charge of disaster preparedness measures during normal times.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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The No. 1 reactor, left, of the Mihama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture is one of a few reactors in Japan operating for more than 40 years. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The No. 1 reactor, left, of the Mihama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture is one of a few reactors in Japan operating for more than 40 years. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • The No. 1 reactor, left, of the Mihama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture is one of a few reactors in Japan operating for more than 40 years. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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