Monday, March 18, 2013

Akira Omoto and the Japan AEC:

The Rest of the Story

On March 14, Nucleonics Week reported on the resignation of Akira Omoto from the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), where he had served as a Commissioner since January 2010.  As Nucleonics Week content is available by subscription only, let me summarize the article by saying that it presents several factual events:  that Omoto resigned from his position on the JAEC on March 7, that he had been called before the Diet (the Japanese Parliament) on February 26, that he said he was a paid advisor to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) from November 2009 to March 2012, that he refused to reveal the amount of compensation he received from TEPCO for his advisory services, and that he saw no conflict between his two roles (JAEC Commissioner and TEPCO advisor).  The article also reported that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary, had both said that the public would find it "difficult to understand" Omoto's view, but that they had rejected a suggestion to fire Omoto.

Since I know Akira Omoto well, I was surprised at this news.  Over the years, I've had a number of conversations with him about nuclear activities in Japan, and I had always found him to be honorable, and to take the "high ground" on issues.  The more I thought about the article, and the more I communicated with people in Japan, I realized that the Nucleonics Week article had missed a number of relevant points:
  • The role of the JAEC is to formulate nuclear power policies, not to regulate or license nuclear power plants, so it seems improbable that Omoto's dual positions could be used to influence government actions on behalf of TEPCO;
  • Omoto's position on the JAEC was as a part-time Commissioner, and part-time Commissioners usually hold other positions outside the JAEC;
  • Omoto was working for TEPCO prior to his appointment as a JAEC Commissioner, and that work was declared to the Diet as part of his confirmation process;
  • Omoto's advisory role to TEPCO focused on activities related to new entrants (based on his experience in his previous position with the IAEA), not on matters related to JAEC jurisdiction; and
  • The hearing before the Diet leading to his forced resignation came a year after Omoto had resigned his position as an advisor to TEPCO.
Although there may be elements to this situation that I don't know, the facts I do have make the actions of the Japanese government seem disproportionate.  Given the situation in Japan, perhaps it should not be surprising that the Japanese government is looking for "scapegoats" to try to provide an appearance that it is cleaning house.  I don't doubt that the public is skeptical, so even though the connection between the positions is remote, and even though the conflict, if any, has now been removed, some may feel that "punishment" is still due.

However, it seems to me there are more productive actions the Japanese government could be taking to "clean house."  Forcing the resignation of an individual who used to work for the industry in a position that appears to have no conflict with his government role seems cosmetic at best.  It is sad to see a good name maligned for what appears to be political purposes. 


1 comment:

  1. I had a message from a friend about this post:

    "Gail - While I agree objectively with all that you have said on Mr. Omoto's behalf, I would argue as regards matters of this sort that the "appearance of conflict" far outweighs the objective facts of potential conflict. By US standards the two roles he held are not compatible. My two cents."

    In response, I agree that appearance is an issue, but I disagree that US standards would necessarily hold these roles to be incompatible under similar circumstances. Of course, it is difficult for either of us to make a conclusive statement, because I don't know of any US government agency that provides an exact parallel to the present JAEC*--that is, a position that is part time, decision making, policy oriented, and non-regulatory. I can identify positions that have some of these characteristics, but not all, so the parallel isn't perfect. However, if you do accept US committees with some of these characteristics as suggestive of US practices, I can say for certain that some of the members of several boards or committees that I follow have maintained affiliations with the industry during their tenures on the government bodies.

    NRC Commissioners, of course, must shed all industry ties--but that is a full-time position, and is explicitly regulatory, so is not completely relevant as a comparison. The closest existing comparison in DOE is DOE's Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee (NEAC). NEAC does allow members with industry ties to serve on the committee. NEAC is a policy oriented, non-regulatory body with part-time membership--but is advisory to the DOE, so has 3 of the 4 characteristics I noted. Not conclusive, but suggestive.

    (*Note: I say "present JAEC" because the JAEC originally did have a regulatory function--but that was from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Wikipedia item on the Japan AEC is a little out of date on this!)