Nominee for new nuclear watchdog fails to silence critics

August 02, 2012


The hard-line stance of the nominee for the chief of the new nuclear regulatory commission failed to quell criticism about his close ties with Japan’s entrenched “nuclear village.”

Speaking at pre-appointment Diet hearings on Aug. 1, Shunichi Tanaka pledged to bolster oversight for the nuclear power industry if he chairs the commission, which is expected to be established in September.

Although he was nominated by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the 67-year-old Tanaka said he is ready to review and, if necessary, retract policies implemented since the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The Cabinet approved reactivating the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture based on the provisional safety standards it introduced in April.

Tanaka cast doubts about those standards.

“There is the possibility that sufficient consideration was not given to appraising the effects from tsunami and quakes set off by ocean trench earthquakes, as well as evaluating active faults,” he said.

Tanaka also said he will seek to shut down the two Oi reactors if an active fault is found.

“The commission will join investigations and determine (whether active faults lie within the Oi plant grounds), instead of leaving the issue to the plant operator, as has been the case,” Tanaka said. “If an active fault is found, the commission will ask the plant cease operations.”

The two reactors were the first to be brought back online since the Fukushima No. 1 plant was damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The new nuclear regulatory commission, to be set up under the Environment Ministry, will replace the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan under the Cabinet Office and other organizations.

Tanaka’s strong language is more than welcome to the Noda government, which is desperate to dispel criticism that it compromised safety by restarting the Oi reactors.

“It has been taken for granted that the safety standards will be reviewed when the new commission is established,” an official at the prime minister’s office said. “It’s good that (Tanaka) went so far as (criticizing the government's stance).”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura appeared to have taken into account Tanaka’s remarks that the provisional standards were insufficient.

“The independent commission will discuss (the standards) from now on,” he said at an Aug. 1 news conference.

Tanaka also criticized the Noda government’s handling of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

In December, Noda declared that the accident had been brought under control. However, Tanaka said, “What is certain is that the situation is not under control.”

Speaking about government efforts to remove radioactive materials in disaster areas, Tanaka said, “My frank opinion is that work is progressing slowly.”

Tanaka voluntarily started decontamination activities in Fukushima Prefecture after the accident and became an adviser on the issue for the prefectural government.

Tanaka emphasized that a provision limiting the operation of nuclear plants to 40 years in principle, included in the law establishing the commission, is necessary to secure the safety of aging plants.

Ken Saito, a Lower House member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, asked if the across-the-board 40-year ceiling makes sense.

Tanaka said he plans to stick to the rule, saying that nuclear facilities will deteriorate after 40 years and advances in technology will be made over the same period.

But critics label Tanaka as “a resident of the nuclear village,” a cozy community of politicians, bureaucrats, businesspeople and academics involved in the nuclear power industry.

Tanaka was formerly vice chairman of the government’s Atomic Energy Commission. He also served as vice president of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute and president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan.

“Tanaka is one of the chiefs of the nuclear village,” Ben Hashimoto, a Lower House member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, said Aug. 1, at a meeting of a group of lawmakers opposed to his nomination. “We can clearly see (the government’s) veiled attempt to approve the reactivation (of more nuclear reactors).”

At a protest rally held by nongovernmental organizations in the Diet building on Aug. 1, participants called for the retraction of Tanaka’s nomination.

The protest groups submitted a request to nuclear policy minister Goshi Hosono, demanding that the screening process for nominees be made transparent and public hearings be held.

The Diet’s two chambers are expected to approve the nominations of Tanaka and four other members of the new nuclear regulatory commission when they vote during plenary sessions as early as next week.

Still, a midranked lawmaker estimates that dozens of Lower House members will vote against Tanaka’s nomination or abstain from the vote.

Opposition remains strong even among DPJ lawmakers.

During a session of the Upper House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1, DPJ member Masako Okawara said, “The overwhelming voice in the Diet is that (the post) cannot be left to a resident of the nuclear village.”

After a session of the Lower House Rules and Administration Committee the same day, DPJ member Hiroshi Kawauchi told reporters, “I could not feel any expression of remorse or apologies (from Tanaka). I expect him not to voluntarily accept the post.”

Tanaka, meanwhile, said he does not have close ties with the electric power industry.

“I spent many years at a research institute. I have not associated with (officials at) electric utilities,” he said. “(But) given my career, there is no denying that I am called a resident of the nuclear village.”

During Diet hearings, Tanaka was criticized for receiving about 290,000 yen in fiscal 2011 from Japan Atomic Energy Relations Organization and other entities for writing articles.

The amount was less than the 500,000 yen in annual remuneration from nuclear-related companies and organizations that was used by the Noda government as a standard in screening nominees for the commission.

“It will be a problem if we find out you actually received more (compensation),” Upper House member Kenichi Mizuno of Your Party said. “Are you prepared to resign if the figure you provided is different?”

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Shunichi Tanaka at the Upper House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1 (Satoru Semba)

Shunichi Tanaka at the Upper House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1 (Satoru Semba)

  • Shunichi Tanaka at the Upper House Rules and Administration Committee on Aug. 1 (Satoru Semba)

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