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All about transparency and independence

New nuclear regulatory agency still up in air



TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan entered a rare period on Sunday of having no nuclear power supply following last year's Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster, without seeing much progress on shaping a new nuclear regulatory agency that could play a key role in addressing public concerns over the safety of atomic power.

The government plans to establish a new agency under the Environment Ministry amid criticism that the existing Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency lacks teeth because it is under the umbrella of the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, a promoter of nuclear power.

But parliamentary deliberations on a bill submitted by the government to launch the new agency on April 1 have not yet started and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party has complained that the organization's independence would not be sufficiently secure under the government plan.

"What the government is trying to do is just create a second NISA under the Environment Ministry," LDP lawmaker and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said after the submission of the government bill in January.

To challenge the government, the LDP, along with its ally, the New Komeito party, submitted a bill in April that proposes putting a new agency under the control of what they call a "nuclear regulatory commission" with a legally guaranteed independence.

The appointment of the five commission members would require Diet approval and the commission would have the right to decide on the agency's personnel and budget matters.

The organizational structure reflects Shiozaki's view that one of the important lessons Japan must learn from the Fukushima crisis is to reduce the risks created by political interference.

Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who had to deal with the crisis when it first erupted, has come in for criticism from some quarters, with a private-sector nuclear accident investigation panel saying in a report it issued in late February that "unnecessary confusion" may have occurred because people at the prime minister's office who lacked sufficient expertise got involved in detailed technical issues in trying to contain the crisis.

In the United States, with regard to events that would be occurring inside the plant, responsibility would lie with the plant operator and the regulator, Richard Meserve, former chairman of U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said during a hearing in Tokyo by a Diet-appointed accident investigation panel in February.

In the counterproposal, the opposition parties made clear that the envisioned commission would wield authority over technical matters inside nuclear power plants even in the event of an accident.

But the government believes that political decisions could increase in importance during emergencies, such as when mobilizing the Self-Defense Forces, and doubts whether the opposition-proposed collegiate panel would be capable of swift decision-making.

The delay in the launch of the new agency has also complicated the issue of whether to restart two reactors in Fukui Prefecture to address power shortages in the summer, with some ruling Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers calling for the government to wait until the agency is created before making a final decision.

Satoshi Arai, chair of a DPJ taskforce on nuclear accident-related issues, has warned that it would lead to problems in the future if the government rushes to restart them without changing the current framework, in which the nuclear regulator is under the auspices of its promoter, the industry ministry.

"Industry minister Yukio Edano is in charge of NISA and at the same time of energy policy ... These two functions were what the International Atomic Energy Agency advised Japan in 2007 to separate, but what was not implemented," he told a meeting of party members in mid-April.

Now that the opposition parties have compiled a counterproposal on a new regulatory body, a government official involved in preparing for the launch of a new agency expects that things will start to progress.

"In the not-so-distant future, I believe arrangements will be made to reach a conclusion on the issue because we all understand that we cannot take so much time," he said.

Muneo Morokuzu, a professor at the University of Tokyo,expressed hope that the ruling and opposition parties would engage in talks not only on the form of the organization, but also on more substantial issues related to the new agency.

"Regardless of the legal status of the regulatory body, what is important is to create a new agency with greater independence and a high degree of professionalism," said the professor specializing in nuclear regulations.


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