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Post-Fukushima Nuclear Politics in Japan, Part 2: The Nuclear Regulation Authority

- April 2, 2013

(This post is co-authored with James Platte and Jennifer Sklarew. Part 1 of this series is here.)

Japan’s new nuclear regulator, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), was established in September 2012 in response to the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.  Unlike the previous regulatory body that oversaw the rise of Japan’s nuclear sector, the NRA is legally an independent agency.  The NRA must withstand pressure from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the nuclear industry and overcome resource challenges in order to properly enforce new standards and win back public confidence in nuclear power.  This will be especially challenging given that public opinion polls have shown a massive drop in trust in Japan’s bureaucracy.

Japan’s former nuclear regulator, the Nuclear and Industry and Safety Agency (NISA), was housed in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI).  This embeddedness was seen as a conflict of interest because METI was (and remains) responsible for promoting the use of nuclear power. The United States faced a comparable conflict of interest challenge when the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was criticized following the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill for being the regulator and collector of industry taxes. Following the accident, the U.S. government responded by creating the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.  Similarly, the cabinet of former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan called for “the separation of nuclear regulation and promotion” in an August 2011 decision.  This new regulator was to be separate from METI and consolidate authority over nuclear safety, nuclear security, and environmental radiation monitoring.

The NRA is part of the Ministry of Environment but is classified as an Article 3 Authority.  This legal classification is designed to ensure “independent exercise of authority, without control and supervision from a senior agency (e.g., the minister of a relevant government ministry).”  The NRA’s legal independence is augmented by its physical location in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, separate from almost all of the government agencies, which have historically been located in the district of Kasumigaseki.  Additionally, bureaucrats assigned to the NRA are barred by regulation from returning to their original ministries according to a bill passed by the Diet in June 2012.

In addition to nuclear safety, the NRA will assume authority over regulations concerning nuclear security, safeguards, and radiation monitoring that previously were the jurisdiction of various other government agencies.  Consolidation of regulatory authority will be complete by April 1.  The NRA’s formation will result in the elimination of NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission, and the related nuclear authorities of METI and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology will be reduced.  Moving from a patchwork of regulators to an integrated agency may assist the government in establishing a more firm footing in the field.

Thus far, the NRA has released draft safety and seismic standards for light water reactors and final safety regulations are due by July of this year.  A significant change in the draft standards involves redefining active fault lines from faults that have moved within the past 120,000 years to faults that have moved within the past 400,000 years.  Seismic study teams are conducting inspections of nuclear plants, and based on the new standard, they have preliminarily declared that there may be active fault lines beneath the Tsuruga plant in Fukui Prefecture and the Higashidori plant in Aomori Prefecture.  These rulings would force those reactors to be decommissioned, and not surprisingly, the plants’ operators have challenged the NRA study teams’ findings.  Responding to these concerns, the NRA held open hearings with the electric power companies in January.  The NRA stated that safety reviews will begin after the release of the final regulations in July but added that the reviews will take time to complete.

NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka also seems aware of the Japanese people’s desire for strict, independently enforced nuclear safety regulations.   He stated that the NRA must meet “…the expectations of the people to the fullest, in adopting and applying strictest regulations,” and he said that the NRA “…should be careful not to consort with electric utilities and other interest groups.”  However, it was revealed recently that an NRA official held at least 30 meetings with power company officials, in violation of internal NRA rules.  The former official was removed from his post, but this was a blow to the NRA’s image as an independent regulator.

The LDP has pressured the NRA by publicly making pro nuclear statements and calling for swift restart decisions.  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked for reactor restart decisions to be made within three years, and other senior LDP members stated the need to restart reactors soon for the sake of the Japanese economy.  The LDP appears likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future, and the NRA must strike a balance between strictly enforcing its regulations, staying clear of energy policy making, and maintaining a good working relationship with the LDP.  A central government official said that the Japanese public ultimately will make decisions on safety, economics, and risk acceptance, and that the NRA, the LDP, and the nuclear industry must work together with the public interest in mind.

The NRA also faces resource challenges to properly enforcing nuclear regulations.  The Ministry of Environment has not been a powerful agency, but the NRA must be given sufficient financial, technical, and human resources in order to carry out its mission.  Currently, the NRA has a few hundred technical staff members and likely will have to rely on outside experts to conduct technical inspections and analysis.  The NRA’s staffing problem is complicated by the fact that former private sector workers are perceived by many as biased in favor of the nuclear industry, yet the private sector is the most likely place to find people with the necessary level of expertise and experience in the nuclear field.

The creation of an independent regulator is one of the most significant changes to Japan’s nuclear policy after the Fukushima accident.  The NRA is tasked with regaining public trust in the nuclear industry, and appears intent on demonstrating its commitment to doing just that.  However, pressure from the LDP and private sector, combined with resource challenges and the recent scandal over illicit meetings between an NRA official and power companies, will strain the NRA’s ability to truly remain independent and properly enforce regulations.  The real test for the NRA will begin when reactor safety inspections commence later this year.  How these inspections play out will be a significant determinant in the immediate future of the Japanese nuclear industry.