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Rejoining the Nuclear Village

NISA Jacket

Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency jacket (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — For several months we had been thinking that the success of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, or NRA, might represent one of the truly under-appreciated stories of 2013. For most of the anti-nuclear crowd the NRA could never really win much admiration because they dispute a fundamental premise upon which this organization was built — that nuclear energy could ever really be safe in earthquake-prone Japan no matter how strict the regulations. The pro-nuclear crowd only wanted the NRA to help them ease public fears about nuclear reactors, but weren’t really interested in tough regulation if it was going to cause them significant trouble and expense. Despite its potentially thankless position between these two poles, it seemed to us that the NRA was going about its business with impressive skill and conscientiousness — until this week.

The creation of the NRA, it will be recalled, is probably the most important institutional change in the Japanese government provoked by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. While TEPCO, the operator of the plant, still seems to be going strong in spite of a remarkably unsympathetic performance throughout the past two years, the triple meltdown proved fatal for the former regulatory regime, the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA).

What the Kan administration figured out very quickly in the wake of 3.11 was that these regulators had nearly zero capability to fulfill their supposed functions to regulate the utilities and were basically useless in the face of the enormity of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis.

This wasn’t immediately understood by the public, however, and in fact NISA produced an early star. Realizing they needed a good communicator up front, Hidehiko Nishiyama became the public face of NISA a few days after 3.11 and was extremely effective in his role. In both Japanese and English languages, he conducted press conferences brilliantly and seemed to represent the reassurance that the government was competent and still in command. We remember how foreign journalists praised him as one of the few Japanese government officials that came across to them very well, and it was clear that the Japanese media, as well, was leaning on his every pronouncement.

But as quickly as he became a media star, stardom rapidly devoured Hidehiko Nishiyama. A weekly magazine investigating this talented bureaucrat discovered that Nishiyama had conducted an illicit affair with a subordinate and was cheating on his wife. Every detail of the affair was put out there in public and became the source of widespread chatter. A week later after publication, NISA pulled Nishiyama from his prominent post. After his fall, they apparently had no one at all who could fill his shoes and NISA slid from scandal to scandal without anyone in the agency being able to put up a reasonable defense.

The single-most devastating blow to NISA’s authority was the revelation in the summer of 2011 that it was conspiring with the utilities to manipulate public forums in such a way as to make it seem as if the general populace remained supportive of nuclear energy. The evidence was concrete that NISA, an organization ostensibly established to be a watchdog over the nuclear industry in the cause of public safety was in fact more concerned with promoting the pro-nuclear agenda of the big utilities no matter what the public may have thought about it.

This was the very nature of the “nuclear village” that permitted the lax standards ultimately leading to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Even the “policemen” — so to speak — were on the take.

Many critics said that a fundamental problem was that NISA was housed within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which had long led the charge for the promotion of nuclear power in Japan, especially after the 1973 Oil Shock. This meant that NISA was, from its very origins, pulled in two directions that often came into conflict with one another. On the one hand, they were supposed to guarantee nuclear safety on behalf of the public; but, on the other, they were generally mandated to promote the spread of nuclear energy in Japan. Obviously, it was the second master more than the first that guided their behavior, especially in the country of Amakudari, where “good behavior” could land senior bureaucrats in plum post-retirement positions.

For this reason the NRA, which came into being on September 19, 2012, almost exactly six months ago, was housed within the Ministry of the Environment. It was felt that such a perch would allow them to focus more exclusively on ensuring safety without undue ministry pressures to take a permissive posture toward the utilities.

Many anti-nuclear activists, however, worried about the appointment of Shunichi Tanaka as chairman of the NRA. He had formerly been vice-chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission as well as the president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan. They viewed him as a typical “Old Boy” of the nuclear village and a far cry from what was needed to restore public faith that the agenda from now on would be safety, safety, and safety.

Watching his actions in the months after the launch of the NRA, however, we were growing stronger in our conviction that the anti-nuclear forces may have misjudged this man and that Tanaka had truly understood his public mandate and took it to heart.

One of his first public statements was that if reports of an active earthquake fault under the Oi Nuclear Power Plant proved to be true, then he would “immediately” order the facility to be shut down, even though its No. 3 and No. 4 reactors were (and still are) the only ones running in Japan.

Even after the pro-nuclear Abe administration came to power last December, the initial signs were that the NRA was not afraid to contradict government priorities. When the Abe team indicated that it wanted all qualified nuclear reactors turned back on within three years, Tanaka publicly indicated that this was impossible as the safety of all reactors could not be guaranteed within that time frame.

Surprise! The regulator was doing its job, not just bending to the latest political directive. Something new seemed to afoot.

In February, when Tetsuo Nayuki, the director-general for nuclear regulation policy, leaked an NRA report in advance to the Japan Atomic Power Company without authorization and for the purpose of helping the company answer government charges, not only was his action revealed to the public, but he was even fired from his sensitive senior post. Under the old regime, his action would have just been par for the course within the nuclear village. Clearly, there was a serious attempt here to change the culture.

So the evidence was piling up that the NRA was actually — and somewhat unexpectedly — honestly carrying out the mission for which it had been designed: It was a nuclear industry regulator for which guaranteeing public safety was essentially the only concern.

Well, that fine notion seems to have fallen apart at the six-month mark.

On Tuesday, the NRA announced that KEPCO’s Oi Nuclear Power Plant—the same one that Shunichi Tanaka had said would be shut down immediately if evidence of an earthquake fault were found—would in fact be treated as an “exception” to the new nuclear safety standards that are planned to come into force in September.

And Tanaka had declared just two months ago, “The Oi plant cannot be treated as an exception.”

Why the change of heart? NRA Chairman Tanaka explained, “When applying new standards to operating reactors, we must provide some leeway by considering the impact on society.” He also acknowledged the influence of KEPCO’s claim that they cannot guarantee stable power supplies this summer without keeping the Oi reactors running.

Due consideration for the “impact on society” sounds nice on the face of it, but in practical terms this is an open invitation to the government and utilities to think up plausible reasons why safety standards should not be rigorously enforced. After all, the NRA is staffed with experts who presumably know many things about the design and operation of nuclear reactors, but how many staff members do they have that can measure the “impact on society” of leaving the reactors turned off for a while? How are they going to obtain such information except to simply rely on what the utilities tell them are the facts? Doesn’t this, in fact, put the NRA right back on the same road that corrupted NISA?

Even the Nikkei hints at the true meaning of the latest turn of events. They wrote: “This shift prompted a high-ranking Environment Ministry official to note that the agency ‘has softened its attitude from a safety-above-all-else mentality.’ The change of heart is also seen in the authority’s move to narrow its definition of active faults in earthquake risk assessments… Some see the change of government as behind the policy shift. The Liberal Democratic Party-led government has indicated a departure from the previous nuclear-free policy introduced under the Democratic Party of Japan.”

It would be fair to conclude, then, that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara found some lever with which to bend NRA Chairman Shunichi Tanaka to their will.

As is so often the case in Japan, there are no real checks-and-balances in the system because of the intense cultural pressure to always pull in the same direction with the rest of the team. With Abe’s 70% support rate and the nearly unanimous backing of the bureaucracy and the mainstream press, Tanaka likely calculated that he’d better not stand in the popular prime minister’s way, and that he’d better shift gears to avoid getting himself crushed, perhaps by some manufactured “scandal” or whatever. We’ve seen it happen before.

So it seems that the NRA is now going the same way as every other Japanese nuclear regulator before it — after wandering alone in the starless night for many months, they are finding their way home to rejoin the nuclear village.

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