The Role of Technical Capability
One area that has been somewhat neglected in the discussions of regulatory independence in Japan is the role of the technical capability of the regulatory staff. In the long run, this factor is probably as important as the other factors that have been discussed, including the organizational independence and the implications of amakudari, and deserves more attention. I will try to make a few observations here.
One fundamental characteristic of the Japanese government is that the majority of the government employees are generalists. Although the Japanese government does employ some specialists in different fields, the majority of staff, even in highly technical areas, do not have technical degrees or experience in technical fields.
Furthermore, the government employment system operates much like the US military and diplomatic personnel systems operate--that is, over the course of their careers, individuals are rotated to positions throughout their agency, and sometimes to other agencies, in a deliberate career-building process managed by personnel departments. As in the US military and diplomatic systems, individuals "belong" to/have a lifetime employment promise from the agencies that hired them originally and a permanent transfer to a new agency, e.g. the independent regulator, raises complex career questions. (This helps explain why Japanese government reorganizations are very infrequent.)
One of the objectives of the process is for senior employees to have achieved a broad understanding of the full range of activities of their organization, rather than to have an in-depth understanding of any single part of the agency's activity. Thus, for an agency like NISA's parent agency, the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (METI), which has a large scope of responsibility, an individual may move from positions dealing with the oil sector to the nuclear sector to the manufacturing sector to international trade to economic development, without ever becoming a qualified expert in any single areas.
As a result of this process, government agencies have come to rely heavily on committees of experts, mostly drawn from universities and sometimes including retirees from industry. These experts have in-depth technical training and are able to review technical matters and provide advice to government agencies. As far as I can tell, the advice is usually good. The problem is that the staff is overly reliant on the advice and is unable to develop any of their own independent assessments. Therefore, they may not be able to recognize it in the hopefully rare cases where an expert adviser makes an error. There is also a danger that accidental biases in committee selection could bias results and give less attention to certain issues.
In 1992, I was working at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and I was assigned to spend 6 months at the regulatory organization in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the predecessor to NISA in METI. My assignment was to monitor the Japanese efforts to license the GE Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), which NRC was then gearing up to do. I remember once asking a staff member at MITI what the basis was for a decision they were making on the licensing of the ABWR. The answer I got was that an advisory committee member said so. When I asked how the advisory committee member had come to that conclusion, the MITI staffer did not know. It was sufficient that he had the word of the advisory committee member. I found it troubling at the time that he had absolute confidence in something that he could not, and did not try to, verify for himself. After all, anyone can make a mistake, even an expert.
Once again, as always, such technical independence is a matter of degree. People could point to the US NRC, and I suppose to every other nuclear regulatory organization in the world, and note that it gets a lot of technical input from outside. The NRC, in particular, has a statutory standing advisory committee, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), as well as other advisory groups. In addition, it contracts with the national laboratories, universities, and other organizations to conduct experimental research and to provide technical reports on a number of subjects.
Nevertheless, there is a critical difference--the staff at the NRC, which has about the highest percentage of advanced degrees of any agency in the US government--is capable of independently reviewing and understanding the advice and reports it receives. When an NRC staffer stands up before the Commission or other body to discuss a study produced under a contract he or she managed, that staffer can explain the technical basis for the conclusions of the study.
Like amakudari, the practice of staffing government agencies with generalists is embedded deeply within the Japanese government system and will be a difficult one to overcome. However, the government does employ a small number of technical specialists, so there is some recognition that people with such capabilities are necessary. It seems to me that, along with the the other reforms to the nuclear regulatory system that the Japanese is considering, provisions should be developed to increase the percentage of technically trained staff in the new regulatory organization. Such a change will go a long way toward addressing one fundamental barrier to true regulatory independence in Japan.