First reshuffle at Japanese regulator

10 June 2014

Two new commissioners at Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) have been approved by lawmakers as the safety body grows into its role and builds working relationships with industry.

The latest personnel changes will see geologist Akira Ishiwatari and university professor Satoru Tanaka join the NRA in September, replacing lead seismologist Kunihiko Shimazaki and former ambassador Kenzo Oshima at the end of their tenures. They were selected by the cabinet and approved by votes in both houses.

Ishiwatari has previously worked for the NRA studying fault lines near nuclear power plants, but the appointment of Tanaka marks a break from the previous approach to selecting commissioners. His links to nuclear organisations listed in a transparency statement include a former chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, some past work for Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) and Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy as well as a role advising a research foundation supported by Tepco.

In 2012 the Japanese government went to great lengths to establish the NRA as more independent than its predecessor, NISA, which was seen as being too close both to industry and to the government which promoted nuclear power. Then prime minister Naoto Kan set initial rules that nobody could work at the NRA who had been employed by a nuclear organisation in the previous three years, which obviously reduced the pool of suitably qualified candidates for the organisation which at the same time had to grow rapidly to meet enormous demand for its services.

But while being meticulously separated from industry, the NRA's political independence remains somewhat reduced due to its status within the Ministry of Environment, and also because its leading commissioners are selected and approved by politicians. This unusual mix has resulted in an awkward working relationship between the NRA and the nuclear operators it regulates, and the resulting poor communication has contributed to the slow progress in reactor restarts. The appointment of Ishiwatari and Tanaka is the first reshuffle among the NRA's four commissioners, while its chairman (Shunichi Tanaka) has a five-year term.

Incoming commissioner Satoru Tanaka was the subject of debate by commentators wary of his links to industry: The Japan Times underlined that "the NRA doesn't need a 'yes man'", while The Yomuiri Shimbun said the reshuffle was "a step towards more scientific safety reviews."

All 48 of Japan's power reactors remain offline while the regulatory system reboots and re-appraises reactor safety according to a new set of criteria. Without nuclear power the country is importing some 84% of fuel for its electricity generation, nearly all of which is from fossil-fired power plants.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News