Nuclear watchdog in hot water over leaked report to Tsuruga plant operator

February 02, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

A senior official of the Nuclear Regulation Authority secretariat was removed for leaking a draft report by an expert panel on seismic activity at the site of the Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture to Japan Atomic Power Co., operator of the facility.

Tetsuo Nayuki, 54, director-general for nuclear regulation policy, received an official reprimand Feb. 1 and was transferred to his old post at the science and technology ministry, the watchdog body said.

The NRA said Nayuki met with three officials of Japan Atomic Power, including one of its managing directors, Taiki Ichimura, in the NRA office building on Jan. 22 and handed copies of the draft report, which had yet to be released to the public, to those present.

The 30-minute meeting started around 3 p.m. It had been requested by Japan Atomic Power, and Nayuki met with the three officials alone, in violation of an NRA bylaw that requires at least two NRA officials to be present during meetings with power utility officials unless such gatherings are held purely to exchange pleasantries.

According to the NRA, Japan Atomic Power officials had put out feelers to get a copy of the draft report.

Nayuki initially thought that providing one would help ensure more in-depth discussions at assessment meetings. But he had second thoughts, and on Jan. 23 acknowledged to colleagues what he had done.

The NRA stripped him of his duties by the end of that day.

"The document was a summary of discussions during open-door meetings of an expert panel, and contained no confidential information," NRA Deputy Secretary-General Hideka Morimoto told a news conference on Feb. 1. "But he acted extremely unwisely, because neutrality was an important part of his duties."

The NRA expert panel was tasked with assessing the seismic activity of fault lines beneath the premises of the Tsuruga nuclear plant. On Jan. 28, it endorsed a draft report saying that one of the faults, which runs directly beneath one reactor building, was likely active and could affect the safety of the complex in the event of an earthquake.

The NRA said the document handed to Japan Atomic Power was not the same as the final version presented to the Jan. 28 meeting. It also said that Nayuki, who had been put in charge of earthquakes and tsunami issues, was authorized to modify text in the draft but did not do so.

The latest revelation would seem to suggest that a cozy relationship still exists with power utilities. The NRA was only set up last September.

There has been intense criticism of the so-called nuclear village grouping bureaucrats, industry and academics in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, especially in light of official government policy to promote nuclear energy.

The NRA was established to end that perception. It is defined as an independent body by Article 3 of the National Government Organization Law, in the same category as the Japan Fair Trade Commission.

As such, the regulatory functions of the industry ministry, which promotes the use of atomic energy, were spun off.

To ensure transparency, the NRA instituted a bylaw on protocol for meetings with power industry officials. It also requires that a record of such talks be kept.

The date, duration, names of those attending and a summary of discussions are posted on the NRA website for anybody to view.

But the NRA decided to exempt meetings to exchange pleasantries to help Nayuki ease into his job and build up a relationship with Japan Atomic Power.

Morimoto said he thought the provision was too vague to be properly enforced.

"The distinction between visits to exchange pleasantries and substantial meetings is not always clear," he told the Feb. 1 news conference.

Japan Atomic Power officials met Nayuki on five occasions in December and January. The utility held a news conference of rebuttal immediately after the draft report was released on Jan. 28.

"We have asked (NRA officials) to let us know in advance about what (the draft report) says, but we have never applied pressure of any sort," a Japan Atomic Power representative said.

Experts who had never been involved in safety screenings for nuclear reactors were called in to conduct on-site surveys at the Tsuruga nuclear plant and compile the draft report. They concluded the fault line in question was "likely active," a clear departure from the stance of the former Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the NRA's predecessor.

That agency never reached a conclusion on the seismic risks posed by the fault line, although the problem had long been pointed out.

"We have been doing our best to draw up a trustworthy report," said Yasuhiro Suzuki, a professor of active fault studies at Nagoya University who served on the expert panel. "It is embarrassing that an official of the NRA secretariat acted in a way that could arouse questions about that trustworthiness."

Officials at a nuclear regulation office in Tsuruga, which reports to the NRA, also were clearly embarrassed.

"It is regrettable that this problem has occurred just as we were trying to regain confidence in nuclear power administration," said one employee.

"We, at the forefront, will be the most affected," said another. "Local residents may look at us with distrustful eyes."

Harumi Kondaiji, an anti-nuclear activist in the Tsuruga city assembly, a body that is dominated by proponents of atomic energy, said she thought the revelation symbolized a revival of the "nuclear village."

"That's no different from the former Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan," said Kondaiji, 62, referring to another predecessor of the NRA.

Tsuruga Mayor Kazuharu Kawase issued a statement to decry the development.

"(Nuclear regulators) should not behave in a way that could feed distrust at a time when they are trying to restore public trust," the statement said. "I am concerned about the negative impact on future discussions."

(Jin Nishikawa contributed to this article.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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NRA Deputy Secretary-General Hideka Morimoto at a news conference on Feb. 1 (Toshiyuki Hayashi)

NRA Deputy Secretary-General Hideka Morimoto at a news conference on Feb. 1 (Toshiyuki Hayashi)

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  • NRA Deputy Secretary-General Hideka Morimoto at a news conference on Feb. 1 (Toshiyuki Hayashi)
  • The Tsuruga nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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