Toyoshi Fuketa, the acting chairman of Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), which was set up following the failure to prevent the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), has become the body's new chairman.
Five years have passed since the NRA was established, but with many people still opposed to the reactivation of Japan's idled nuclear reactors, it would be difficult to say public faith in the government regulation of nuclear power has been restored.
In a news conference to mark the assumption of his new position, Fuketa stated, "I will do my best, with continued sentiment toward Fukushima." We hope that the new chairman will work on strengthening the NRA's role as a nuclear regulator, without forgetting those words.
Under former Chairman Shunichi Tanaka, the NRA set new safety standards for nuclear power plants, strengthening measures to handle earthquakes and tsunamis, and as a rule opened its discussions to the public. This certainly increased transparency at the NRA and helped eliminate outside interference.
However, merely opening up discussion and information to the public is insufficient. Unless the NRA can explain the reasons for its decisions in ways that are easy for the public to understand, the body will not be able to win their trust. Its screening of the No. 6 and 7 reactors at TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant is a prime example. TEPCO's president expressed his resolve to "make safety a priority" -- and the NRA made the utility stipulate this in its own safety regulations for the plant. If TEPCO violates this pledge, then the NRA can order suspension of the reactors. Yet the NRA has not explained how it will gauge TEPCO's resolve.
The nuclear watchdog has five commissioners, but no seismologists at present. It is no easy task to cover the whole sphere of regulatory administration with limited personnel. Establishment of a system to adeptly incorporate the claims and views of external experts is an issue that should be addressed in the future.
During screening of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant this month, Fuketa stated, "It's hard to think that the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant could have been prevented had its operator been different." And in a news conference before former Osaka University vice president Shinsuke Yamanaka took on his role as an NRA commissioner, Yamanaka made comments critical of Japan's rule that nuclear reactors must be decommissioned after 40 years in principle.
Accidents can happen even if countermeasures are taken. That's the lesson we have learned from the Fukushima crisis. But hearing the words of these two NRA figures, many members of the public probably felt that lesson was fading.
In a news conference to mark his departure from his position as NRA chairman, Tanaka called for nuclear power to be discussed "in depth" in the Diet. One can perceive the view that a passing grade under NRA screening is not an official endorsement for restarting nuclear power plants.
Will Japan continue to use risk-laden nuclear power plants? There is a need to discuss this question, separate from the strengthening of regulatory administration.