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Japan nuclear regulator effectively made safety measure decision behind closed doors

This map shows Mount Daisen's distance from Kansai Electric Power Co.'s Takahama, Oi, and Mihama nuclear power plants. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Decisions were effectively made at a closed-door pre-meeting hearing about Kansai Electric Power Co. at the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), prompting experts to argue that closed-door pre-meeting hearings have effectively become the body's decision-making organ, and that the NRA's actions violate the Public Records and Archives Management Act.

In December 2018, at a preliminary hearing of a meeting in which the NRA was to decide on countermeasures against volcanic ash that it would require from Kansai Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) for its nuclear power plants, the NRA slashed one of two proposals that had come up. The organization, however, did not create minutes of the preliminary hearing in which this occurred, and collected and disposed of documents distributed to the participants.

At a public meeting held six days later, the NRA presented the remaining proposal and approved it -- as if the other proposal had never existed. Meanwhile, the NRA claims that all decision-making is done at committee meetings.

Kansai Electric's three nuclear power plants -- Takahama, Oi, and Mihama -- had obtained authorization for its nuclear reactors according to new standards instituted in response to the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station. Some researchers, however, had pointed out that the amount of volcanic ash that would be generated in the event of an eruption at Mount Daisen in Tottori Prefecture, western Japan, had been underestimated. At an open meeting on Nov. 21, 2018, the NRA agreed, and was deliberating how to handle the authorization it had already given Kansai Electric.

The Mainichi Shimbun obtained a document that had been distributed to participants of the pre-meeting hearing in December 2018 titled "Procedures for using the new findings to have (KEPCO) apply for authorization of nuclear reactors (proposals)" from a source connected to the case. "Notes for discussion" was printed at the top right-hand side of the sheet of paper, along with a chart showing possible procedures for two proposals: 1. Swiftly prompt an application through written instruction, and 2. Order a re-evaluation of estimated volcanic ash volume. According to the source, the discussion in the pre-meeting hearing was based on this document, and participants made the decision to go with proposal 2.

Both proposals 1 and 2 ultimately seek that the utility apply for authorization. But the document says that while proposal 1 means that the NRA has determined that the nuclear reactors would fail to meet standards, proposal 2 means that the NRA will have not gone so far as to make a decision until it accepted KEPCO's re-evaluation. If the NRA determined that a reactor did not meet standards, it was possible that calls for a stop to the project may have spread.

According to the NRA Secretariat's public relations department, the pre-meeting hearings are called "chairman lectures," in which the NRA Secretariat's administrative staff explain the contents of documents to the NRA chairman. A total of 11 people, including Chairman Toyoshi Fuketa; Akira Ishiwatari, who is in charge of volcanic ash issues; then secretary-general Masaya Yasui; and then deputy secretary-general and current secretary-general, Toru Ogino, participated in a pre-meeting hearing held on Dec. 6, 2018.

As for the reason that no minutes of the meeting were taken, an NRA Secretariat PR representative explained, "It was a brainstorming session in which participants spoke freely about the issues and their views, and in which no conclusion was drawn. The session does not correspond to a decision-making process as defined in the Public Records and Archives Management Act."

At the public meeting held Dec. 12, only proposal 2 was presented, and all five commissioners agreed to it. In March 2019, Kansai Electric submitted a report that raised the maximum estimated amount of volcanic ash to about twice that of the original volume. However, because the utility showed no intention of applying for authorization, the NRA ordered an application that June.

(Japanese original by Kosuke Hino, Tokyo Bureau, and Ryuji Tanaka, Special Reports Department)

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