14 Mars 2012
It is now looking much more likely that the establishment of a new nuclear regulatory agency will be delayed. The Democratic Party of Japan-led administration had planned to get the new body off the ground on April 1, but opposition parties have indicated they will fight the passage of bills underpinning the agency when they come up for debate in the Diet.
The new agency's predecessor is the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), a part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry -- a ministry directly involved in the promotion of nuclear power. After the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant meltdowns in March last year, the government decided that NISA's position under the industry ministry was a serious flaw in Japan's nuclear safety regime and moved to abolish it in favor of the new regulatory agency.
Surely anyone would admit that splitting NISA from the industry ministry and combining its brief with other regulatory duties is an important step. Not only is the conflict of interest inherent in the current state of affairs obvious, it also goes without saying that a new regulatory body must be put in place as soon as possible.
The real issue is how that body will be set up. The Cabinet has decided on a bill to establish it as an external bureau of the Ministry of the Environment. Some members of the opposition, however, have argued strongly for the agency to be a separate committee, which would have a great deal of independence under Article 3 of the National Government Organization Law.
The government has made much of the merits of putting the new agency under the environment ministry, saying that crisis management would be much easier than if the body was set up as an independent committee. On the other hand, there are valid worries over whether an agency under the ministry could, when needed, make truly independent, objective judgments contrary to government expectations. The government needs to address this concern in a concrete manner.
There is also a pressing need to focus on how a revamped Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (NSC) will help guarantee the incipient regulatory agency's independence. It must furthermore be noted that the environment ministry has no crisis management experience, which is a source of some worry.
On the other hand, we must not jump to the conclusion that setting up the new agency, as the opposition suggests, as an Article 3 committee like the Fair Trade Commission would necessarily guarantee absolute independence. Whether an external bureau of the environment ministry or a separate commission, the points truly at issue are how it is built, how it is managed, and how it will retain important staff.
We also call on the opposition not just to try and slow debate on the bills underpinning the new agency, but to initiate substantive discussion on this important issue. Opposition parties must explain how the Article 3 committee they favor would be put together, and how that would safeguard the new body's independence of action. They must also tell us in definite terms what structure they see for the committee that would allow it to overrule government policy in a crisis.
It is also possible that the delay in creating the new regulatory agency will also affect decisions on restarting nuclear reactors idled for regular maintenance. On March 13, the NSC completed approval of the results of stress tests on the No. 3 and 4 reactors at the Oi nuclear plant -- conducted by NISA, which we have already seen has a direct conflict of interest.
Of course, under the stress test process, the decision on restarting reactors can be made at the political level. However, it's just impossible at this point to ask us to trust NISA and the incumbent version of the NSC.
At this moment, faced with the frankly nerve-wracking technology of nuclear power, deliberations and decisions on its future must not be delayed by political gamesmanship. We call on the governing and opposition parties together to move deliberations on this issue forward.