Friday, May 13, 2011

Japanese Nuclear Regulation:

A Call for Change

After writing a blogpost last week on the Japanese government and nuclear power activities, I realized I might have more insights to offer over time, based on my experiences living and working in Japan. However, I did not think I'd be writing again on that topic so soon.

A recent article in a Japanese publication has moved this topic back up the queue again. (On the other hand, Blogspot just lost a nearly complete draft of this blog, so if they screw up again, there's no telling when this post will see the light of day.)

Asahi (publisher of one of Japan's largest newspapers) recently reported that on May 9, the Atomic Energy Society of Japan (AESJ) recommended the consolidation of all regulatory activities in Japan under a single independent authority. I have felt for a long time that this would be a good idea, and I applaud their action in making this recommendation.

As the article reports, the current responsibility for nuclear regulation is divided among 3 different agencies in Japan:

• The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC) operates out of the Prime Minister's Office and is responsible for the basic policy and philosophy of national nuclear safety regulations in Japan.

• The Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) of the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (METI) is responsible for the general oversight and inspection of commercial nuclear power plants and other facilities, and for the enforcement of national regulations for nuclear power.

• The Nuclear Safety Division of the Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture, Science and Technology (MEXT) has similar responsibilities for experimental and research reactors and facilities using radioisotopes.

While these agencies do interact with each other, the fact that they operate under three different organizations inevitably makes coordination and consistency more difficult to achieve. Outside observers have long found the separation of functions confusing and difficult to track.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that NISA is under the same Ministry as the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE), the agency responsible for the promotion of nuclear power (as well as of other energy sources).

In fact, in 1992, I served as a liaison from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to NRC's counterpart in what was then the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). The regulatory group at that time was actually a part of ANRE, and the offices of the regulatory group were directly across the hall from the offices of the ANRE group responsible for nuclear promotion.

Therefore, when NISA was separated from ANRE in 2001, I thought it was a move in the right direction. However, as the article indicates, the organizations have remained closely linked.

I hasten to say that I never saw any indication that the regulators were directly influenced by their proximity to the promoters, and I certainly cannot at this time attribute any specific elements of the Fukushima incident to the present government organizational structure. Nevertheless, the close day-to-day contact between the regulators and promoters does not generate confidence that the functions are truly separate.

AESJ, which is the nuclear professional society of Japan, has many members who are very familiar with regulatory structures in the United States and other countries, so they are in a good position to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different systems and to know what can work for Japan. Therefore, I consider it a significant step for them to make this recommendation.

Once again, in this time where all things nuclear are under review in Japan, it may be a good moment to achieve a long-needed reform.


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