Japan inaugurated a new nuclear safety agency Sept. 19, as part of moves to tighten oversight of a sprawling industry blamed for one of the world's worst nuclear disasters.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority is charged with writing new safety standards and response guidelines in the event of another disaster, but it is unlikely to release new rules by year's end.
The Noda administration has said it aims to pull the plug on nuclear power by the end of the 2030s.
It also aims to restart idle nuclear reactors, which it considers an important source of power. But who will be responsible for such decisions, and how they are made, remains undecided.
On Sept. 14, the Noda administration presented a document entitled "Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment," declaring a goal of zero nuclear power. The strategy says idle nuclear reactors can be restarted only when the NRA confirms they are safe.
Just two of Japan's 50 nuclear reactors are currently active: the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture.
The decision in June to restart them lay with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Environment Minister Goshi Hosono and other Cabinet ministers with relevant portfolios. It was based on the results of stress tests and compliance with provisional safety standards.
On that occasion, the Noda administration examined power supply and demand, and sought acceptance from local governments.
However, that procedure had no legal basis.
On Sept. 19, NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka, a former vice chairman of the Cabinet Office's Atomic Energy Commission, told a news conference he wants to review provisional safety standards. But he said the agency would be unlikely to release new safety criteria by year's end.
"I want to have them reviewed as soon as possible, but it may be difficult to do so (by the end of 2012)," Tanaka said.
This means when demand rise for power arrives this winter there may be no approval yet to restart additional reactors such as the Tomari nuclear power plant in Hokkaido, which is widely considered to be the next in line.
Even if the NRA declares nuclear reactors safe, it remains unclear what procedural mechanism can be used in deciding whether to restart them.
"We have yet to discuss what standards to establish," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, referring to the checks influencing a restart decision. He was addressing a news conference Sept. 19.
The NRA was created by separating the functions of the former Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency industry watchdog from the pro-nuclear Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
The agency had been set up within that ministry. Its functions would now integrate with both the Cabinet Office's Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan and the radiation monitoring division of the science ministry.
The realignment was intended to end too-cozy relationships within what has been described as a nuclear village—a closed community of nuclear experts in government, industry and academic research—which came under fire following the March 2011 reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The NRA is now part of the Environment Ministry, and its independence is guaranteed under Article 3 of the National Government Organization Law. This law provides a legal basis for similar independent bodies, including the Japan Fair Trade Commission.
The 460 individuals employed by the NRA secretariat were transferred to it from organizations such as the former NISA and former NSC.
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