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Credible nuclear regulation needs independence, transparency

Officials of the Secretariat of the Nuclear Regulation Authority meet reporters in Tokyo on Dec. 27 to explain about closed-door meetings of the secretariat and the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy regarding extending the life span of aging nuclear reactors.

January 6, 2023

Nuclear regulation should place importance on “independent decision-making” and “ensure total disclosure of information,” including facts concerning the decision-making process.

This principle was established in line with the bitter lessons learned from the dreadful calamity that occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011. The pledge must not be taken lightly.

Recent revelations have raised serious questions about the nuclear regulator’s commitment to the principle.

The Secretariat of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) held seven closed-door meetings with the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, an agency under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), over Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s initiative to extend the life span of aging nuclear reactors.

The two organizations also held dozens of telephone conversations over the matter.

After the Fukushima disaster, the jurisdiction of regulating nuclear power generation was transferred from the pro-industry METI to the newly created Nuclear Regulation Authority. The NRA is an external organ of the Environment Ministry.

In early October, the NRA instructed its secretariat to review regulations related to the proposal to extend the legal life of reactors. But the secretariat and the agency had begun holding talks over the matter at the end of July. The secretariat did not report these early meetings to the NRA or keep records of the sessions.

When these facts came to light in December, the secretariat categorically denied discussing, coordinating or adjusting nuclear safety regulations during these talks. It contended there was no problem with the “independence and transparency” of the NRA.

During these meetings, however, the energy agency told the NRA secretariat that revisions to laws including those under the NRA jurisdiction were being considered. The secretariat called for the deletion of certain provisions concerning nuclear safety regulations from the envisioned bill while beginning to consider its own bill.

It is difficult to believe that these meetings were not for advance policy coordination or discussions.

Generally speaking, exchanges of information between government organizations are necessary for smooth administrative functioning. But the NRA was separated from the METI, the leading champion of nuclear power generation, to ensure its independence.

It should not be viewed or treated similarly to other ministries and agencies.

NRA Chairman Shinsuke Yamanaka has argued that there is nothing wrong with staff members of the secretariat discussing related issues since the final decisions are made by the NRA.

But the NRA’s code of conduct, which stresses the importance of independence and transparency, states that the NRA performs its duties “together with” the NRA secretariat. The principle should also be applied to the secretariat.

The NRA’s failure to keep track of what was going on within the secretariat raises questions about its governance.

Especially serious is the secretariat’s disregard for the importance of information disclosure, which is vital for assessing and securing the independence of nuclear regulation.

The secretariat has said meetings and discussions with other ministries and agencies are not subject to the rules concerning record-keeping. But the NRA has told the secretariat to keep records of future meetings with other government departments related to nuclear power generation and make public the records.

But telephone conversations will not be covered by this rule. Is this sufficiently effective?

The top three positions at the NRA secretariat have been held by former METI officials since last summer. The NRA’s responses to the proposal to extend the life span of reactors since October have been criticized as “premature” actions even by some NRA members.

If the NRA fails to forthrightly address the suspicions raised by the latest revelations, the credibility of nuclear regulation will be undermined. The NRA should undertake a serious probe into what transpired and publish the findings.

https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14808235

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January 20, 2023 - Posted by | Japan |

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