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What reform for JAEA?

August 15, 2013


Editorial: Plan to reform Japan Atomic Energy Agency a major challenge



The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has drawn up a plan to reform the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), the operator of the trouble-plagued "Monju" prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Fukui Prefecture.

The ministry emphasizes that the plan would fundamentally overhaul the entity following revelations that the JAEA had failed to inspect about 10,000 parts of the reactor. However, the plan is nothing but superficial reform centering on partially downsizing the organization. The ministry should go ahead with the reform of the JAEA after thoroughly discussing the role of the nuclear fuel cycle project in Japan's future energy policy.

As such, the plan, which has been worked out on the premise that the Monju reactor will be retained, represents a serious challenge to the public.

The JAEA is a huge organization with an annual budget of some 180 billion yen and about 3,900 employees.

The reform plan calls for a split of the nuclear fusion research and other divisions from the JAEA while prioritizing the nuclear fuel cycle project centering on Monju, a response to the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, atomic power safety research and human resource development. The reform would reduce the number of its employees by around 500.

Monju would be transformed into the "Monju power station" under the direct control of the JAEA president as an organization only responsible for operating and maintaining the reactor. However, as the plan calls for the establishment of a separate organization responsible for public relations on Monju, the number of workers assigned to the fast-breeder project would rather increase. Those who have served as top officials of private power stations would be appointed as JAEA board members in charge of safety measures. Moreover, mid-ranking JAEA staffers would be dispatched to railway companies or airlines to learn how they can operate JAEA facilities while placing top priority on human lives.

The reform is aimed at using private-sector funds to drastically restructure the organization. However, such an idea is what has been called for whenever a technical problem occurred in the past and is nothing new.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) pointed out in May this year that the JAEA's safety culture had deteriorated following revelations that the agency omitted examinations of approximately 10,000 parts of Monju, and banned the body from making preparations to restart the reactor.

The JAEA can in no way nurture its own safety culture even if it asks the private sector for cooperation without scrutinizing why it had previously failed to carry out its own reform. The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry is responsible for the JAEA's deteriorating safety culture as its government regulator.

It's easy to see that the government's nuclear fuel cycle policy has already failed. More than 1 trillion yen in taxpayers' money has been invested in Monju, which would have been the core facility in the project, but there is no prospect that fast-breeder reactors will be put into practical use in the foreseeable future. There are suspicions that an active fault is situated just below the reactor. The facility costs about 20 billion yen a year although its operations have been suspended. Most other developed countries have abandoned developing fast-breeder reactors.

The completion of a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant under construction in Aomori Prefecture, which is another core facility in the project, has repeatedly been postponed.

Nearly 2 1/2 years have passed since the outbreak of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Some 150,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture are still taking shelter within or outside the prefecture, while workers at the crippled nuclear plant are struggling to deal with radioactive water accumulating on the premises of the power station.

Instead of sticking to the continuation of the Monju project, it would be better for Japan in the long run to let the JAEA concentrate on its response to the nuclear disaster and decommissioning the disaster-hit reactors, while conducting research on nuclear safety.

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