Shenzhen Daily March 29, 2011
Japanese nuclear regulator tied to industry
JAPAN’S nuclear regulator has amassed power while growing closer to the industry it regulates, according to former regulators and industry critics who blame the trend for lapses that may have contributed to the Fukushima Daiichi accident.
Bucking the global standard, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has two distinct and often competing roles: regulating the nuclear power industry, and promoting Japanese nuclear technology at home and abroad.
The setup recalls U.S. regulation of offshore drilling before last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, in which the same agency regulated the industry and promoted offshore oil-and-gas development. One of the Obama administration’s first post-spill actions was to break up the agency.
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear plants, is independent from the Department of Energy, which researches and promotes nuclear power.
Critics say that if regulators in Japan had been more independent they might have imposed stricter regulations on plant safety that could have prevented the crisis or eased its severity.
The ministry ordered companies in 2006 to review the earthquake readiness of their nuclear plants, but it didn’t set a deadline. Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, filed its interim review in 2009. Its only mention of tsunami was to say that it was continuing to study the subject.
“The regulators are so friendly with power companies that they don’t hold them responsible for so many things,” said Tetsuya Iida, a former nuclear-industry engineer who heads a think tank.
A 2007 earthquake in a different part of Japan crippled another Tepco nuclear plant. Japan’s main bar association, which investigated the problems, said regulators failed to catch errors in the power company’s evaluation of a newly discovered seismic fault, which led to the plant having insufficient protection against earthquakes.
The bar association said at the time it was “urgent” to establish an independent regulator. The Democratic Party of Japan endorsed the idea shortly before taking power in 2009.
Hidehiko Nishiyama, a ministry official who has served as nuclear-safety spokesman during the crisis, defended Japan’s setup, saying that the promotion side of the ministry doesn’t interfere with safety regulation.
“It’s totally not the case that the [accident] happened because there were some kind of cozy ties between Tokyo Electric Power” and the regulators, said Nishiyama, who represents the ministry’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. The accident “won’t be an occasion to rethink” regulation, he added.
The Japanese ministry once oversaw broad swaths of the Japanese economy. But in recent years, its work has focused more on energy and power as other industries, such as autos, were deregulated.
METI and other ministries have long practiced amakudari, or “descent from heaven,” in which officials retire relatively young and take jobs in the private sector.
In 1980, just three of 25 of the ministry officials who went to for-profit private companies went into the energy business, according to government personnel records. Recently, by contrast, a large portion of the retiring officials have gone into the energy or power field. Of 22 METI officials who reported plans to retire while serving at the ministry during the year that ended in March 2010, 10 went into those fields, including jobs at industry bodies, government records show.
“METI has unabashedly sent retired officials to the power industry, and politicians have received campaign funds [from companies]. In exchange, power companies were allowed to hold on to their regional monopolies,” said Taro Kono, a lawmaker with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party who has been among the few open critics of the industry in parliament.
Last summer, a senior METI energy official, Toru Ishida, became a senior adviser at Tepco. That was an embarrassment for Japan’s ruling party, which had vowed to root out the practice. Ishida followed Susumu Shirakawa, a METI veteran who was a board member and executive vice president at Tepco until retiring last June.
Former ministry officials also hold board positions at other top power companies around the country, including Kansai Electric Power Co. and Shikoku Electric Power Co. At Electric Power Development Co., two former METI officials are on the board and one is an executive vice president.
Japan’s government attempted to address the ministry’s dual role in 2001 after a series of accidents in the 1990s, including a 1999 case in which workers mishandled nuclear materials and two of them died. A revamp created an independent Nuclear Safety Commission under the Cabinet. Nishiyama of METI said the commission “watches over us” to prevent any “damage to the people.”
The commission, however, doesn’t have power to inspect companies or order changes. Some 4,000 nuclear scientists and staff at a body that supports the commission with research into nuclear technology have mostly been observers of the Fukushima disaster, according to industry officials.
The commission has become “nothing more than a think tank,” said Kenji Sumita, a former deputy chairman of the commission and emeritus professor at Osaka University. A commission spokesman declined to comment. At the time, regulators confirmed that the identity of the whistleblower had been leaked and punished officials involved.
France once had a structure that was comparable to Japan’s but it set up an independent body known as the Nuclear Safety Authority in 2006. (SD-Agencies)