October 2002

EDITORIAL: Toughen safety controls. Nuclear regulatory agencies must be integrated

The Asahi Shimbun, October 5, 2002

[Posted 08/10/2002]

It turns out that lying on safety inspections at the nation's nuclear power plants, first uncovered at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), encompasses other electric utilities as well. To regain public trust in the safety of nuclear power generation, the government needs drastic reforms and more stringent administration of the industry.

Following reports that utilities hid damage they considered not immediate safety risks, new disclosures showed TEPCO, Tohoku Electric Power Co. and Chubu Electric Power Co. failed to report to regulators damage in pipes in reactor cooling systems. TEPCO is also suspected of falsifying data on the pressure integrity of containment vessels, which are supposed to shield radiation.

Many people must have been stunned by the degree of duplicity in the nation's nuclear power industry and disappointed at the government's slack administration of safety standards. One problem is the weakness of the regulatory agencies, as seen in their inability to detect the subterfuge. Another is the prospect of collusion among regulators and utilities, as suggested by the fact government officials told TEPCO who blew the whistle on their falsehoods.

The Advisory Committee for Natural Resources and Energy, which reports to the minister of economy, trade and industry, formed a subcommittee to address this problem. It urged legal standards for self-imposed safety inspections to require the utilities to keep records on inspections and creation of standards to assess the extent of damage at nuclear power plants.

But these small changes are inadequate to restore trust in regulation of the nuclear power industry.

Overall regulation of nuclear power generation is the responsibility of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The Nuclear Safety Commission in the Cabinet Office oversees the steps taken by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Thus, nuclear power generation is regulated in two tiers, a practice unparalleled anywhere else.

We propose changing this structure to separate the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in line with a suggestion from the liaison organization of municipal governments in communities near nuclear power plants. After the agency is spun off from the ministry, it should come under direct control of the Nuclear Safety Commission.

The Nuclear Safety Commission has five members, each one a specialist in nuclear power generation or the effects of radioactivity. The commission has several specialized subcommittees and screening panels. Although it is an advisory body on control at the highest level of government, the commission's primary role is to review the documentation of measures taken by government agencies. The commission finds it difficult to make up for regulatory weaknesses, and much of its effort is often wasted.

The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency showed it is not capable when it failed to discover who did what in the TEPCO coverups.

An overlapping inspection system may be fine if government agencies have plenty of people. But the nuclear energy division of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has about 260 people, including inspectors assigned to nuclear power plants, and the Nuclear Safety Commission has only about 100. In comparison with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States, which has a staff of about 3,000 members, Japan's regulatory agencies are undeniably short-staffed.

Regulatory agencies must be integrated for more stringent government regulation. This integration should be considered not only for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission but also for part of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, which studies safety of nuclear energy, and the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, which studies uses and effects of radioactivity. More nuclear power generation specialists must be recruited.

In short, Japan needs something like the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, supported by capable specialists and researchers. Government agencies to promote nuclear energy and regulate the suppliers should be distinct, to prevent collusion. Such drastic measures are inevitable considering the trust destroyed by the instances of false reporting.

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