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About nuclear power safety

June 15, 2012

Editorial: 40-year limit on nuclear reactors a basic requirement



The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and New Komeito have agreed on revisions to a bill on the creation of a new organization overseeing nuclear power safety in Japan.

The bill, which is expected to be passed during the current Diet session, envisages the creation of a highly independent "nuclear regulatory commission." This commission is expected to swiftly review the government's proposal to place a 40-year operational limit on Japan's nuclear reactors.

The birth of a highly independent regulatory body is welcome, but we cannot allow the 40-year limit rule to be watered down.

After the outbreak of the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the government said Japan would decrease its reliance on nuclear power. We have also called on the government to abandon the construction of new nuclear reactors and shut down existing reactors in the order of the risks they pose, decreasing the overall number of reactors in Japan. The 40-year limit has served as an important yardstick in this respect.

Currently, the wear on a reactor is evaluated 30 years into its operational life, and with the government's approval, the reactor's life can be extended in 10-year increments. However, even when old reactors are found to have safety-related faults, it is difficult to incorporate new technology into them.

The LDP stated it could not agree with a blanket 40-year limit on reactors -- probably from the opinion that differences between old and new model reactors and other such factors should be taken into consideration. However, reactors that are new now will be old in 40 years. In breaking away from nuclear power, there is great significance in placing a ceiling on the life of reactors. The new regulatory commission should clarify its standards for deciding on the decommissioning of reactors, and make it possible to decommission reactors before their age reaches 40 years.

The regulatory commission will comprise five experts under a chair. In their negotiations, the LDP, DPJ and Komeito agreed that the commission's decisions on the technical response during an emergency would take priority, and the prime minister's right to issue directives would be limited to those urging the commission to make a decision. As such, the commission faces a huge responsibility.

The appointment of commission members would require Diet approval. When choosing members, undue pressure from nuclear power-related industries, the academic world and politicians must not be allowed. The new bill demands public disclosure of information, but a level of transparency in which the public can check the commission's activities must be established.

The same goes for the nuclear power regulatory agency that would serve as the commission's secretariat. It would be founded by merging the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES), an incorporated administrative agency, with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Workers at the JNES would become public servants. A "no return" rule, in which workers are forbidden from returning to the organizations from which they came, would be implemented. But at the same time, a system to evaluate talent should also be implemented. It is probably necessary to set up departments at universities and other institutions to train nuclear safety specialists.

The three parties also agreed to set up a nuclear power disaster prevention council. The prime minister would serve as chairman, officials including the chief Cabinet secretary and the head of the regulatory commission would serve as vice chairmen, and the council would advance disaster-prevention planning and drills in areas outside the premises of nuclear power plants.

During the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing nuclear crisis, government agencies and local bodies had trouble coordinating with each other. It is essential to build a nuclear disaster prevention system operating under the principle that accidents occur.

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