Saturday, March 7, 2015

Nuclear News from Japan:

Several Perspectives

I just returned from a couple of weeks in Japan, where I had the opportunity to meet with a number of people, both in and out of the nuclear field.  One highlight was that I was invited to give a presentation to a group of industry executives.  The talk was scheduled at what turned out to be a pretty eventful time.

In my presentation, I was asked to cover several subjects that were of particular interest to Japan in their post-Fukushima environment.  These included the US actions, both by the regulator and by industry, following Three Mile Island, and the efforts in the US to improve the capacity factor of operating nuclear power plants.  I was also asked how public confidence was rebuilt after TMI.

To address these questions, I had prepared a talk that touched on a number of areas, among them, the evolution of the Principles of Good Regulation in the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  The presentation particularly focused on the issues of independence and openness.  

Just two days before I delivered my talk, the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) posted on their webpage a report from their international advisory group.  The advisory group is made up of former regulators from several countries, including Richard Meserve, a former chairman of the USNRC and current chairman of the IAEA Nuclear Safety Group; Michael Weightman, a former executive head of the British Office for Nuclear Regulation; and Claude Lacoste, a former chairman of France's Nuclear Safety Authority.

The report from the group specifically expressed a concern that a mandatory review of the performance of the NRA could lead to a loss of independence of the agency.  The news hit the front page of the Japan Times the morning I was scheduled to speak.

When the NRA was started, the enabling legislation provided for a review of the operation after three years of existence with a proviso to consider placing it under the Cabinet Office.  While the advisory group welcomed a review of the NRA's performance, they expressed concern that that the potential for the agency to be brought under the Cabinet Office could subject the agency to political interference, and could risk undermining its independence.  They noted that this independence is crucial to the effort to restore public confidence in nuclear power. 

I had already planned to address the subject of regulatory independence in my talk, but this timely announcement made the presentation seem particularly in tune with the news of the day.  I was able to refer to the announcement and to discuss political independence very specifically.  I also discussed independence from the industry, and the difference between independence and isolation.   

In addition, I addressed industry behavior, particularly the problems that arise when operators try to hide problems, whether from the regulator or from the public.  I didn't refer to any particular incident, but I was aware of past attempts to present a positive "face" to the world--often called tatemae in Japan--and knew this was an important issue.  

Thus, I was very disappointed to discover that the news just a couple of days after my talk contained a report that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had just announced a possible leak of contaminated rainwater that it had known about since last May.  Unfortunately, even if the leak is minor, such behavior is counterproductive to the efforts in Japan to rebuild public confidence.

I came away from Japan with the feeling that there is still much to be done there to change the institutions and the behaviors of the nuclear community in a way that will truly assure a higher level of performance and that can ultimately help rebuild public confidence.  



1 comment:

  1. Gail, sorry to have missed your visit. Your observations are entirely correct. Restart, at any cost, is the only consideration in Japan. The underlying problems are only being addressed superficially, without honest regard (honne?).