Saturday, November 12, 2011

Japanese Nuclear Power Regulation:

Addressing "Sloppy Inspection Procedures"

I haven't blogged about the situation in Japan in some time now. The situation at the Fukushima site has somewhat stabilized, and Japan has begun the long and painful process of recovery. Along with so many others, I have been watching this process. It has reached a stage where there is not as much, day to day, where I feel I can add some special insight.

Recently, however, some new revelations published about the Japanese inspection process have spurred me to return again to the post-Fukushima issue. The article in question, entitled, "Sloppy inspection procedures threaten Japan's nuclear safety regulations," was a very interesting analysis in the Mainichi Daily News detailing differences between Japanese inspection procedures and practices and those of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The article indicates that Japanese inspectors have had a practice of essentially copying material for their inspection reports from the companies they are inspecting. It includes a somewhat frightening quote by someone at the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES), which operates under the jurisdiction of the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The quote essentially rationalized that it didn't matter that the JNES inspectors essentially just repeated the same steps the plant operators had developed.

The article also cites the observations of a Japanese visiting professor at the University of Tokyo who had worked for the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI--now called the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI) in the early 1990s and had been assigned for almost two years to the NRC.

(As an aside, his assignment is part of an excellent program run by the NRC. In addition to bringing Japanese government officials to the NRC, this program has also brought a number of government engineers from emerging nuclear countries to the NRC to participate actively in NRC inspections and technical reviews, and in so doing, to learn practices that they can bring back to their own countries.)

It is very telling that a junior Japanese government employee saw and recognized the differences between US and Japanese procedures and practices. Other Japanese employees were assigned to NRC and must have made similar observations. Nevertheless, the system did not change. I have previously speculated on some of the differences that I believe are responsible for the way the Japanese nuclear regulatory system has worked, and will not repeat those discussions here. Suffice it to say that there are no real surprises in what is now being publicized so widely. These were issues that were known for a long time, both by outsiders and by insiders.

While I am sorry that it took an accident of this magnitude to spur a serious effort to change, one should view the past practices in context. These deficiencies are not unique to the Japanese nuclear program, but rather, as I have previously discussed, are strongly embedded in the culture and institutions of the country. Changing culture and long-standing institutional practices is neither easy nor painless. Clearly, when things were going well, it was impossible to generate any pressure to make the necessary changes.

The task ahead is no easier now, but by the same token, it is no longer possible to deny that the deficiencies exist and must be addressed. A number of initiatives are being started that appear to be serious efforts to raise the bar on how nuclear power is managed and regulated in Japan. This is as challenging a task, in its own way, as are the physical tasks of stabilizing the reactor and decontaminating the surrounding communities. While success at this point is not a given, the concerted efforts being started look promising.


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