Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nuclear Revival:

A Scientific American View

After having reported a couple of months ago that Scientific American readers were not as positive about nuclear energy as I would have expected, I was pleased to see an article in a subsequent issue of Scientific American providing a very positive report on the US nuclear revival.

In particular, the article does not focus on the reactors of the future, which one might expect from a science-oriented publication, but rather reports on the current construction projects in the US, particularly the Southern Nuclear Operating Company project at Plant Vogtle and the South Carolina Electric and Gas Company project at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.

The Scientific American report is basically positive, touting the two projects as currently being on time and on budget. In addition, it mentions the Tennessee Valley Authority efforts to complete Watts Bar Unit 2, and the applications for 20 or so other reactors being reviewed by the NRC. It also summarizes a few of the factors aiding this revival--the lessons learned from construction projects abroad, the increased supply of large forgings, and the new fuel fabrication capabilities in the US.

On the other hand, it notes Constellation Energy's withdrawal from the Calvert Cliffs project, and notes that other US nuclear projects have been dropped or delayed, and it includes the usual statement about the lack of a waste disposal facility.

They quote Marvin Fertel, President of the Nuclear Energy Institute, several times in the article. Most notably, he says, "There will be a lot of [new] plants between now and 2050, just not a lot between now and 2020."

This article was written before Fukushima, but a later editorial in Scientific American, published after the March accident, addresses the potential impacts of the Fukushima accident. This article raises the concern that abandoning nuclear power would leave us with alternatives that are more harmful to people and the environment, or that are far from sufficient in availability. It does find fault with both the NRC and the nuclear industry, and some in the industry might take issue with particular statements. Yet, the overriding message I take from the article is that the problems it identifies are manageable, and it proposes that reactor designs and regulatory processes be improved rather than that nuclear power should be ditched.

While all the information in the two articles will be well known to most readers of this blog, I always find it interesting to know what other people are reading, and I was pleased to see this very fair and balanced article in the pages of a publication that is read by a broad spectrum of scientists and engineers.


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.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Fukushima and Amakudari:

A Problem with a Long History

A number of news articles have been published since the Fukushima accident pointing to the sometimes overly close relationship that exists between the nuclear industry in Japan and its regulators. Since I have lived and worked in Japan, I thought I might be able to help shed some light on these relationships and the reasons for them.

Before I even begin to address the specifics, however, I want to caution readers that some of the articles on "TEPCO" misconduct include some non-TEPCO incidents, specifically Monju and the criticality accident at Tokai-Mura, and do not make it clear that these are not TEPCO facilities or incidents. While the issues may be similar, I think TEPCO has enough to answer for at the moment without ascribing to them incidents in which they are not the principals.

But to get back to the issue of the "cozy" relationships between the regulators and regulated in Japan, I would first point out that the kinds of relationships that are being criticized are not unique to the nuclear power sector in Japan. In fact, the same kinds of relationships exist in many industrial/commercial sectors in Japan. Furthermore, they do not exist for nefarious reasons. That is, no industry in Japan deliberately set out to create a system to insulate itself from criticism. Rather, the kinds of relationships that exist today are a consequence of a military style "up or out" personnel system and an inadequate pension system that results in people in their early to mid-50s being retired from their agencies without a sufficient pension income.

In fact, some people suggest that the problem stems from incomplete reforms introduced during the post-WWII US occupation of Japan and the American attempt to transform an industrial system that was mainly government controlled into a market economy. At that time, ministries were responsible for the operation of industrial organizations in their spheres of control, so the movement of personnel "retiring" from the government agencies to the industries they ran was not unlike movements within branches of any large industrial organization. The US successfully privatized the industries, but did not reform the pension system at the same time.

As a result, the traditional movement of personnel from government agencies to the now-private industries they controlled continued. In fact, it is an institutionalized arrangement, and part of the responsibility of the personnel offices of government agencies is to arrange the outplacement of staffers reaching retirement age, with industries under some pressure to accept the individuals being placed.

Sometimes people will observe that individuals in the US and elsewhere may move from government to industry or vice versa and question why that is any different from the Japanese system. The answer is that it is very different. American civil servants leaving the government and getting positions in industry are not helped by their agencies and therefore do not "owe" their agencies anything. (In fact, US Federal government officials often have certain restrictions on their activities for a period of time after their government employment.)

The Japanese system, often called amakudari, or "descent from heaven" has long been criticized by outsiders. In earlier days, it undoubtedly helped foster the image that used to be called "Japan, Inc." At one time, that mode of operation had considerable benefit for Japan, as it seemed conducive to developing unified positions in confronting the global marketplace. Somewhere along the line, however, that benefit seems to have lessened, and people stopped using that term as much. In fact, at that point, some of the disadvantages of amakudari seemed to emerge, particularly the inefficiencies caused by sometimes force-fitting people into positions for which they were not well matched.

Now, perhaps, a more serious shortcoming of amakudari may have reared its head and it may become more imperative to alter the kinds of relationships that have existed between the regulators and the regulated community.

It would be far too simple to say that reform of the government pension system is the solution to any problem in Japan. Amakudari is certainly not the fundamental cause of the Fukushima crisis, and it is unclear at this time whether any of the problems at Fukushima will be traced to repetitions of the previous instances of TEPCO misconduct and regulatory "indulgence" that have been dredged up by the press. In fact, my guess at this time would be that amakudari is not a factor. Furthermore, there are other Japanese government and industry practices that might also merit scrutiny in the face of current events. Perhaps I might address them in a future blog.

However, getting rid of amakudari will be a giant step in the right direction for an industry that is now under siege, and should help restore the faith of the Japanese people and the world that the nuclear industry--as well as other industries in Japan--will be subject to the kind of regulatory scrutiny the world expects from one one of the most advanced countries in the world.

Many people feel that Chernobyl helped to topple the old Soviet Union. It would be fitting for Fukushima to topple amakudari.