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About the 40 year "limit"

June 14, 2012


New nuclear regulatory body to review 40-yr operation limit: parties



TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The ruling and opposition parties agreed Wednesday to include a 40-year limit on the operation of nuclear reactors in an envisioned bill to set Japan's new nuclear regulations, but decided to leave the possibility to review the controversial limit.

"The bill is expected to become one that seeks the new nuclear regulatory commission, after its launch, to swiftly judge (whether the 40-year limit is appropriate)," one of the lawmakers who provided a briefing about the talks between the parties said.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party and its ally New Komeito party have also reached an agreement on other key issues, making it likely the envisioned bill will pass the Diet during the ongoing session.

The bill will feature the launch of a highly independent "nuclear regulatory commission" tasked to serve as a key organization to restore public confidence in nuclear regulations that has been shattered in the wake of last year's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. The commission is likely to be created by September.

The commission would have a legally guaranteed independence unlike the existing Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which has drawn criticism for being under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, a promoter of nuclear power.

The appointment of the commission members will require the approval of the Diet, and all government officials who would serve as the commission's secretariat would basically not be able to return to the offices they originally came from.

Another point of argument has been on whether to retain the prime minister's right to give instructions to related entities at times of emergency, given that former Prime Minister Naoto Kan faced criticism for what some call his "excessive" involvement in trying to contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant.

During the negotiations, the parties agreed that the right would remain in place but would be "limited" to such cases as urging the regulatory commission to swiftly make a judgment on technical matters.

"The prime minister's right to issue instructions would not affect judgments (reached by the regulatory commission) based on technical knowledge," another lawmaker said.

To enhance the regulatory body's transparency, the commission would be required to report to the Diet how it is handling its work. Donations and aid for research funds to commission members are also expected to be disclosed.

The envisioned bill is likely to stipulate that the commission should act on the assumption that a nuclear accident can happen, given criticism that "a safety myth" of nuclear energy was prevalent among government and utility officials in Japan before the Fukushima accident.

The outcome of the negotiations suggests that the government and the DPJ ended up largely compromising in shaping the country's new nuclear regulation setup.

The government had initially sought to create what it calls a "nuclear regulatory agency" and was skeptical that the opposition parties-proposed five-member commission system could swiftly function in times of emergency.

The plan to place in principle a 40-year operational limit for reactors has also been a key element of the new nuclear regulation the government has been considering, but the latest agreement reached by the parties suggests the provision could eventually be watered down.

Some LDP lawmakers have argued there is no clear scientific basis for setting such a limit in a single uniform way.

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