Pro-nuclear expert replacing NRA commissioner who raised flag on quake risk

May 28, 2014

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Replacements for two outgoing commissioners of the Nuclear Regulation Authority suggest the Abe administration will find it easier to gain approval for restarts of the nation's nuclear reactors.

Few people in government circles and the nuclear industry will be sorry to see Kunihiko Shimazaki go. His successor is expected to more quickly give the green light to reactivate nuclear power plants.

Shimazaki, who is 68 and a professor of seismology, proved to be a thorn in the side of electric power companies with his calls for a reassessment of the force with which seismic waves and tsunami could pummel nuclear plants being considered for restarts.

Kenzo Oshima, 71, a former undersecretary-general at the United Nations, is also stepping down. Both men are leaving because their terms expire in September.

The two newly named NRA commissioners are Satoru Tanaka, 64, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tokyo, and Akira Ishiwatari, 61, a professor of geology at Tohoku University. Their terms are for five years.

With Shimazaki out of the picture, the NRA will have to get by without a seismology expert to offer advice.

Tanaka once served as president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, and clearly is a proponent of nuclear energy. He has been a professor since 1994 at the University of Tokyo, a respected base of nuclear engineering research in Japan. He has also served on committees related to nuclear energy set up by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, a staunch backer of the nuclear industry.

The business sector, notably electric power companies, griped that Shimazaki was hindering efforts to resume operations at nuclear plants idled since the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture.

An executive with Kyushu Electric Power Co. summed up those sentiments by saying, "Shimazaki made us suffer."

Kyushu Electric had applied for a speedy inspection of its relatively problem-free Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture in its request to bring the facility back online.

Shimazaki was in no mood to acquiesce without making Kyushu Electric put in some hard work. He told the utility to reconsider the maximum force of a quake that could strike the plant. It meant the utility had to take additional safety steps, effectively thwarting the company's hopes of resuming operations in time for this summer when electricity demand peaks.

With memories of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant still fresh, Shimazaki lashed out at electric power companies over their failure to take adequate measures to deal with towering tsunami that could devastate the coast of the Tohoku region.

It is feared that in his remaining months as commissioner, Shimazaki will continue calling for higher estimates of expected quakes--which would delay NRA approval of reactor restarts.

On May 14, executives of the Kansai Economic Federation and Kyushu Economic Federation met with Katsuhiko Ikeda, the NRA secretary-general, to request that approval be given to resumed operations at nuclear plants as soon as possible.

In government circles, officials had clearly grown weary of the way Shimazaki conducts business.

"While tougher inspection standards were called for, Shimazaki kept raising the hurdle for inspections and he never reached a conclusion," said one high-ranking administration official.

At a May 9 meeting of a policy committee within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the deputy policy chief, openly criticized Shimazaki when he said, "While it is acceptable to have seismologists on the NRA, the same cannot be said for someone who knows absolutely nothing about nuclear energy."

With Tanaka as a commissioner, expectations are high that NRA approval of reactor restarts will become a formality.

As a member of an advisory panel on energy policy when the Democratic Party of Japan held power, Tanaka came out in favor of maintaining the ratio of electricity generated through nuclear energy at about 20 percent.

It was also recently learned that three years ago, Tanaka received about 1.6 million yen ($16,000) in research funds and remuneration from a nuclear plant manufacturer and a foundation linked to Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken Fukushima plant.

Tanaka told The Asahi Shimbun in a 2012 interview that no amount of self-reflection over the Fukushima nuclear accident would be adequate considering the scale of the disaster. At the same time, he said, "Nuclear energy is still a technology that is needed in terms of energy security as well as for its contributions to the industrial sector."

Hideyuki Ban, a co-director of the anti-nuclear Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, said, "I have doubts about whether someone who has long been a proponent of nuclear energy can become thoroughly involved in regulation."

He said Tanaka's appointment could damage trust in the NRA.

The other new commissioner, Ishiwatari, has only tepid links to the nuclear industry. Those who have worked with him in the NRA describe him as an able coordinator with a keen sense of the task in hand.

Applications have been filed with the NRA to reactivate 18 reactors at 11 nuclear power plants.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Kunihiko Shimazaki, Nuclear Regulation Authority commissioner (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Kunihiko Shimazaki, Nuclear Regulation Authority commissioner (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Kunihiko Shimazaki, Nuclear Regulation Authority commissioner (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Satoru Tanaka, newly named NRA commissioner (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Akira Ishiwatari, newly named NRA commissioner (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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