Japan's government is to strengthen its ability to veto the construction of new nuclear reactors, by writing a new legal framework that gives it the final say.
Currently, it is the newly established Nuclear Regulation Authority, not the government, which decides whether a project should go ahead. It makes that call on the basis of safety examinations.
The central government has adopted a policy titled Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment. In line with that, it decided last month it would prevent the construction of new reactors.
"I believe that even under the current legal framework, the government can prevent construction of an unwanted reactor," industry minister Yukio Edano said Oct. 12. "Nevertheless, we should consider revising laws and ministerial regulations."
The government's no-new-reactors declaration applies to nine planned units that currently exist only on paper. It has, however, given a nod to the completion of three partially built reactors, although the government has said it aims to phase out nuclear power by 2039.
Authority to license the construction of new reactors used to lie with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. That body no longer exists. A legal revision in June created the Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was formed in September, and granted it the power to approve new reactors.
The new nuclear regulator was designed to operate independently of other government ministries and agencies. This follows criticism of the earlier agency, which came under the jurisdiction of the strongly pro-nuclear Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Critics said the relationship meant the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency was unqualified to vouch for a reactor's safety.
An initial draft, written by the government, envisaged that the new Nuclear Regulation Authority would be unable to license a reactor without the approval of the industry minister.
But a later revision to the text removed the requirement of ministerial approval. It obliged the Nuclear Regulation Authority merely to note the minister's opinion.
The change came in response to demands from opposition parties that the new body retain a high level of independence.
Edano initially figured that the government could prevent construction by rejecting the project when the Nuclear Regulation Authority approached the minister for an opinion.
But Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said the independent watchdog would not be swayed by a minister's wishes.
Meanwhile, a senior official at the industry ministry said another method the central government believes it could use to prevent construction is by refusing nuclear-related subsidies to local governments that seek to host power plants. This would be in the event that a power company snubs the will of the central government.
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