Nuclear watchdog candidate vows to make safety top priority

August 01, 2012

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Despite being criticized for having close ties to the nuclear energy sector, the nominee to become the head of the new nuclear safety watchdog said he would not hesitate to seek the halt of two nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture if active faults are found there.

Shunichi Tanaka, 67, expressed his views before the Lower House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1 as he seeks approval as chairman of the new nuclear regulatory commission that is expected to be established in September.

"As an individual who has been involved in nuclear energy, I have been deeply distressed by the question of why the accident (at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant) occurred," Tanaka told the committee. "I decided to accept the nomination after deciding that I would do everything in my capacity to work for the people who live in the communities that host the nuclear plants."

Regarding future decisions on resuming operations at nuclear power plants that have gone offline for periodic inspections, Tanaka said, "There will be a need for the regulatory commission to conduct a careful confirmation and appraisal."

Tanaka once served as vice chairman of the government's Atomic Energy Commission. He was nominated by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to serve as the first chairman of the new regulatory commission, which will replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Tanaka also appeared before the Upper House Rules and Administration Committee later on Aug. 1.

Plenary sessions of the two chambers of the Diet are scheduled for early August to vote on Tanaka's nomination.

Once the new regulatory commission is established, one of its first tasks will be establishing new safety standards for deciding whether to resume operations at nuclear plants.

The Noda administration decided on provisional standards in April, and those were used in the recent restarts of the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant.

Regarding those standards, Tanaka said, "There is the possibility that sufficient consideration was not given to appraising the effects from tsunami and quakes triggered by ocean trench earthquakes as well as evaluating active faults."

In addition to indicating the need for stricter standards, Tanaka also touched upon what the regulatory commission would do under his watch after approving the resumption of operations.

"If effects from active faults are found as a result of new studies, the commission should seek to stop operations (at such plants)," Tanaka said.

He even indicated the possibility of asking that the Oi plant halt its operations once again.

"There will be a need to determine whether or not active faults lie (within the Oi plant grounds)," he said. "The commission will join the study and make a decision. If an active fault is found, we will naturally ask that the plant stop operations."

Tanaka also referred to a provision in the law establishing the new nuclear regulatory commission that called for limiting operations of nuclear plants to 40 years in principle.

"We will take the position of rigorously checking on nuclear plants that exceed 40 years of operations and not allow operations for those that do not meet the necessary conditions," he said.

He expressed reservations about relaxing those provisions regarding how long nuclear plants can remain in operation.

Tanaka has been criticized as being a member of the "nuclear energy village" since he once held an important post with the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

Some members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan are opposing Tanaka's candidacy because of his close ties to the nuclear energy industry.

In a statement on July 31, the group of about 30 lawmakers headed by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called for reconsideration of Tanaka's nomination.

Hatoyama and some other members have suggested that they would vote against Tanaka if the Noda administration proceeded with his candidacy.

A multipartisan group of anti-nuclear lawmakers, including DPJ members, also demanded reconsideration of Tanaka's nomination at a news conference on July 31.

Another group of about 30 lawmakers, including Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Social Democratic Party, has collected 13,000 signatures calling for the retraction of Tanaka's nomination.

It was also learned that Tanaka received about 290,000 yen ($3,700) in fiscal 2011 from the Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization for writing articles. The organization handles public relations for the nuclear energy sector.

The amount was less than the 500,000 yen in annual remuneration from electric power companies or nuclear energy organizations that was used by the Noda administration as a standard in screening individuals as nominees for the nuclear regulatory commission.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Shunichi Tanaka speaks before the Lower House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1. (Satoru Semba)

Shunichi Tanaka speaks before the Lower House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1. (Satoru Semba)

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  • Shunichi Tanaka speaks before the Lower House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1. (Satoru Semba)

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