Has There Been Any Change?
I recently attended a meeting where someone spoke on their recent research on the Japanese electric power system, including the nuclear reactors in the system. Since the meeting was off-the-record, I will not divulge the venue or the speaker.
The meeting was a bit of an eye-opener for me. With the institution of the new Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in Japan, plus a lot of interaction of the Japanese government and industry with representatives of nuclear regulatory systems in the US and other countries, I have been hoping that the new organization would shake up the relationships between regulators and the regulated. Both the speaker's comments, and a discussion with another attendee after the meeting, make me wonder if I have been overly optimistic.
First, the speaker reported trying to arrange to meet with various government and non-government officials during an extended research trip to Japan. A meeting had been scheduled with someone from NRA, but before the meeting could take place, NRA management had a change of heart. The speaker attributed this to a revelation that someone on the NRA staff had previously met secretly with representatives of a utility. When that was discovered, an internal directive was issued restricting meetings of NRA staffers with outsiders. As a result, the speaker received a message from the NRA staffer canceling their meeting. Since the NRA contact knew the speaker was scheduled to be in Japan for a long period, the message indicated that no meeting would be possible "for the foreseeable future." The speaker waited a couple of months and tried to make contact again, but got no response at all.
Following the meeting, I was chatting with several other attendees, both Japanese and American. One of the group was from a Japanese utility and is presently on a temporary assignment in the US. When we started discussing the incident described above, I alluded to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Principles of Good Regulation. I said that it seemed that the NRA was overreacting to the misstep of one of its staff by withdrawing too much, and I observed to the others that the first NRC Principle of Good Regulation, that of Independence, clearly states that "Independence does not imply isolation." That Principle goes on to state that all views need to be sought and considered. An internal directive limiting the possibility of interacting with all outside parties seemed to me to misinterpret "independence."
The Japanese utility representative responded to this discussion by noting how difficult it has become for utilities to talk to the regulator. They can no longer do so in private, without their conversations becoming known to others, so as a result, they don't want to talk to the regulator at all. I then turned to the second of the Principles, that of Openness, and pointed out that the NRC strives to operate in an open and transparent manner so that the public is assured that decisions are not being made behind closed doors in the proverbial "smoke-filled rooms."
The two back-to-back discussions made me wonder if the new regulatory organization in Japan has really brought about the kind of change that I think needs to occur there. Although in my one-on-one conversation with the speaker after the meeting, I learned that my writings on the Principles of Good Regulation and on other aspects of the US and Japanese regulatory systems were well known in Japan, it is not clear if they have really adopted such principles.
Of course, all parties will find operating in an open and transparent manner a more difficult process than the old practice of operating in secret, and of course, there will be times when they will fall short of the ideal or will overreact. Likewise, I know that NRC is not perfect either. However, suggestions that both NRA and the utilities are reacting to their current situation by isolating themselves represents a move in the wrong direction. I had hoped to hear better news from Japan by now.