Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Japanese Nuclear Regulation:

A Growing Chorus of Concern

[I am reposting this blog entry, which was originally posted about December 2, 2011, with apologies to those who have already read it. I just discovered that Blogspot somehow lost the original post, and further, that this material was posted on another site under someone else's name.]

I was pleased to receive a message a few days ago from a long-time Japanese friend, Professor Yoshiaki Oka, pointing me to an article he’d posted on ” Building a Mechanism for Regulation of Nuclear Power” in Japan.

I had seen Professor Oka in early November at the American Nuclear Society conference in Washington, DC, and I knew then that he was preparing some material on this issue. During the course of that meeting, he spoke to a number of conference attendees, including me, to discuss the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission operates and other related matters.

In my discussions over the past few months with Professor Oka, as well as with a number of other people in the Japanese nuclear establishment (both government and industry), it has become clear that the Fukushima accident had raised concerns about the way nuclear power was regulated in Japan. In a past blog, I had reported on the earliest expressions of concern I had seen emerging from Japan following the accident.

Now the chorus of voices seems to be growing. Professor Oka has written a very comprehensive and eloquent argument for profound change to the Japanese system. He has made a number of the same observations that I have discussed in previous blogs, fingering concerns such as the lack of technical expertise in the nuclear regulatory organization, and the influence of what he calls the highly integrated “nuclear power village” over the regulatory structure in Japan. He also points to the heavy reliance in Japan on the expertise of external groups, and contrasts that with the high level of technical expertise on the staff of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He has identified some 170 such external commissions!

Professor Oka notes that these characteristics are not unique to the nuclear power area. Rather, they are “deeply rooted” in Japanese culture and in the way the government-industry interface operates in all areas. As such, the kinds of change he is calling for will clearly be difficult. Nevertheless, he sees a compelling need to make such changes and, in particular, outlines some of the characteristics of the way the NRC operates that he would like to see adopted in Japan.

On a personal level, I was particularly pleased that Professor Oka cited the 5 NRC Principles of Good Regulation (independence, openness, effectiveness, transparency, and reliability) in his article. As I have previously noted in a blog on the history of the Principles of Good Regulation, when I worked for Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers, he pressed NRC to adopt such a set of principles, and I was assigned to help develop them.

Professor Oka’s publication joins a growing number of experts in Japan and around the world who are looking at the broader issues arising from the accident and trying to address those issues. A recent news item reported that an independent commission looking into the accident is due to release its interim findings on December 26. The report aims to go beyond explaining how the accident happened. It is expected “to explore the social and historical background to how Japan reacted to the crisis and offer insights into how else the disaster could have been handled.” The hope is to start a national debate on how Japan should deal with nuclear technology. It is also noteworthy that the report will be reviewed prior to publication by a group of international experts. These include Dr. Richard Meserve, former chairman of the NRC and now president of Carnegie Institution.

While that report is not yet out, it is clear from the description that a significant focus will likely be on issues like Japanese nuclear power regulation. It is a hopeful sign to see that so many prominent experts appear to be identifying some of the same issues regarding the nuclear power enterprise in Japan. Although there is a large distance to be traveled between identifying a problem and solving it, widespread agreement on what the issues are is a very crucial step. Therefore, it is encouraging to hear the rising chorus of voices in Japan pointing to the same concerns.

[Regular readers of this blog may wish to know that I amended 2 recent posts that discussed the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency to add a mention of a review draft of a document I produced several years ago documenting the first 50 years of the history of that agency.]


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