A guide to Japan's new nuclear regulatory agency

February 14, 2012

Although the government plans to pass legislation in the current Diet session to establish a new nuclear safety regulatory agency in April, questions and doubts remain over the effectiveness of the new watchdog.

Can the Environment Ministry exert control over the new agency despite the presence of industry ministry officials? Can it eliminate growing public distrust of nuclear energy? And will the new organization be able to prevent a recurrence of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant?

The following offers background on the formation of the new nuclear safety agency and the challenges that lie ahead.

WHY IS A NEW AGENCY BEING SET UP?

The Fukushima nuclear accident made clear that the existing regulatory structure was woefully inadequate. The accident led to the release of a similar level of radioactive materials as the 1986 accident at Chernobyl.

With the first anniversary of the Fukushima accident approaching in March, many residents from near the Fukushima No. 1 plant still cannot return home.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) was unable to detect insufficient preparations for an emergency at the plant. The central government also bears responsibility for being unable to prevent the accident, along with Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

In addition, the regulatory process lacked independence. NISA was created in the 2001 reorganization of central government ministries through the merger of nuclear energy regulatory bodies that existed separately under the former Science and Technology Agency and the old Ministry of International Trade and Industry. NISA was placed within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which plays the role of promoting nuclear energy.

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency pointed out in 2007 that greater independence was needed in Japan's nuclear regulatory setup.

The Nuclear Safety Commission under the Cabinet Office also failed to carry out its role in overseeing NISA. Although the NSC has the authority to issue recommendations to the prime minister, it has only used that authority once since its establishment in 1978. That was in 2002, after reports surfaced that electric power companies were covering up problems at their nuclear plants.

Moreover, it was the NSC that compiled the design guidelines for nuclear power plants that never took into account a prolonged period of lost electricity sources, which is what occurred at the Fukushima plant starting on March 11.

The anti-quake guidelines for nuclear plants were revised in 2006, marking the first such change in 28 years.

WHO WILL BE IN CHARGE?

The new regulatory agency will be established as an external agency of the Environment Ministry. Because the ministry has many regulatory roles, such as preventing air and water pollution, it has distance from METI. Before now, the Environment Ministry has not handled emissions of radioactive materials because the government argued that no accidents would occur that spewed huge volumes of radiation into the atmosphere.

The chief of the new regulatory agency will handle all matters related to regulating nuclear power plants. The first head is expected to be a specialist on nuclear energy rather than a politician or bureaucrat.

However, the authority to make decisions on such matters as evacuating residents and transporting relief supplies in the event of a nuclear emergency will be transferred to the environment minister.

HOW WILL IT DIFFER FROM NISA?

The new agency will combine the nuclear safety functions of NISA along with the work of the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), which now comes under the jurisdiction of the science and technology ministry.

The government budget for the new regulatory agency will be about 50 billion yen ($644 million), an increase of about 10 billion yen. The number of employees will jump from 100 to about 500, a far cry from the 3,000 workers at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Even after its creation, the new agency will not be the sole authority on nuclear safety because the Japan Atomic Energy Agency will remain under the jurisdiction of the science ministry. The Environment Ministry will also have a separate body to handle decontamination work. How those functions are eventually brought together will also be a matter to be dealt with.

Another planned move is to abolish the NSC and establish an investigative committee within the new agency. The committee would have the authority to conduct independent investigations into nuclear accidents, including questioning those involved and conducting on-site searches. Penalties are also being considered for those companies that refuse to cooperate with the new committee.

The committee would consist of five members who require the approval of the Diet and would make recommendations to the environment minister and the electric power companies.

WILL THE NEW AGENCY BE EFFECTIVE?

Even under the Environment Ministry, there are doubts on whether the new regulatory agency will be truly independent. One reason is that the Environment Ministry has also pushed nuclear energy from the standpoint of a global warming measure.

It also remains to be seen whether the new regulatory agency will be able to stand up to other central government ministries and the electric power companies.

While those working at the new agency will require specialized knowledge and experience in nuclear safety regulation, few employees of the Environment Ministry have such backgrounds.

Although the agency may have to depend on officials dispatched from METI for the time being, calls have grown for putting guidelines in place to prevent high-ranking officials from returning to their ministry of origin. Others are demanding that measures be thoroughly implemented to foster the employees needed to carry out the tasks of the new agency.

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Anti-nuclear protesters tussle with government officials at a meeting in January on stress tests for resuming operations at a nuclear power plant. (Eijiro Morii)

Anti-nuclear protesters tussle with government officials at a meeting in January on stress tests for resuming operations at a nuclear power plant. (Eijiro Morii)

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  • Anti-nuclear protesters tussle with government officials at a meeting in January on stress tests for resuming operations at a nuclear power plant. (Eijiro Morii)

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