Independent Regulators May Help Clear Japan’s Nuclear Energy Path

Upcoming Elections There Will Weigh Heavily Too

Ken Silverstein | Jul 17, 2013


Before the accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant in March 2011, the country was headed down a path of using more nuclear energy. Now, more than two years later, it may decide to get back on the same track.

The nation’s prime minister is expected to lead his Liberal Democratic Party to victory in the upper chamber there early next week. If successful, a majority of lawmakers could push through the re-starting of most of those nuclear units that have been closed. And while such a position is contrary to how most Japanese feel, the country has now set up an independent nuclear regulator that would have powers unlike those ever granted to its predecessor -- ones that could assure integrity of the regulatory system.

Specifically, the so-called Nuclear Regulatory Authority has publicly stated its goals to incorporate the highest safety standards in the world, which include active measures to counter natural disasters. The aim is win the public’s trust and to create the “peaceful” development of nuclear power. By contrast, the agency that had overseen monitoring efforts was accused of being too cozy with industry, allowing senior government officials to get high-level jobs with Tokyo Electric Power Co. right after they had done their oversight stints.

“We should be careful not to consort with electric utilities and other interest groups; and we will be tireless in our efforts to improve our regulatory measures so that Japan’s nuclear regulation standards will be among the world’s highest,” says Shunichi Tanaka, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority.

The agency, created in September 2012, has shown its willingness to exert its influence: It just said, for example, that the disabled Fukushima nuclear facility has been leaking contaminated, or radiated, water into the Pacific Ocean for two years. While Tepco had initially denied such accusations, it now says that this may have been possible. 

In May 2012, Japan turned off its last nuclear reactor. Since then, it has re-started two units. But it has had to rely on imported natural gas to meet much of its electricity needs. Meanwhile, it has been able to employee energy efficiency methods resulting declines in consumption while also building solar units. Still, it’s energy costs have escalated, with consumers paying an estimate 12 percent more in electric bills.

Competing Interests

Proponents of restarting some of the nuclear facilities are emphasizing that the country cannot replace 30 percent of its electric power generation overnight. They add that all of the country’s nuclear reactors are going through rigorous new stress tests to try and ensure that they could survive massive natural events.

To that end, France’s Areva has said that Japan would re-start six of its 52 reactors by year-end; Areva benefits from selling new safety equipment. Many of the rest could get a second-life soon after, especially if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party gains control of the upper house there. Abe has said those nuclear units that exceed the nation’s new stress testing could re-start within a year of those evaluations.

Opponents, however, are not just fearful of accidents but are also pushing cleaner energy forms. They are urging the Japanese government to move more aggressively into greener energies, pointing out that in the months following the disaster that the nation cut its energy consumption by 15 percent. They are also saying that the power structure there has yet to compensate the people for their losses, or to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of radiation.

They have a sympathetic ear in the Federation of American Scientists. It says that the accident at Fukushima was preventable -- that the earthquake and tsunami there in 2011 were not unprecedented and were not unforeseeable. Poor planning, it says, led to the mis-allocation of resources and compounded the problems there.

“Stronger regulation across the nuclear power industry could have prevented many of the worst outcomes at Fukushima Daiichi and will be needed to prevent future accidents,” write Charles Ferguson and Mark Jansson, president and director of the  Federation of American Scientists, respectively.

The two applaud the development of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority and say that its fierce independence is a must. Among the steps the agency should take, they say, is the creation of a whistle-blower law that allows tipsters to weigh in without repercussions. They say that the prior close relationships between industry and their regulators prevented transparency and candid communications, noting that previous monitors had been “defanged.” 

Finally, the scientists say that any decision to restart the nuclear reactors be based on an “informed approach” -- not political pressures. At the same time, they say that the Japanese public must understand that all energy technologies come with risks, including nuclear power. It’s a balancing act among environmental, economic and human wellbeing concerns, they conclude.


EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority

Ken Silverstein highlights this statement by Japanese NRA Chairman Tanaka: “We should be careful not to consort with electric utilities and other interest groups; and we will be tireless in our efforts to improve our regulatory measures so that Japan’s nuclear regulation standards will be among the world’s highest,”

There is good reason to keep an open mind about whether this assertion is either sensible or achieveable. In a May 2013 speech Chairwomen McFarlane of the USNRC likewise asserted this global standard for nuclear regulatory autonomy: ". . . This includes having an independent regulator that can make safety-related decisions without undue influence from other governmental or promotional entities, with enough staff to support its activities, and enough financial resources to be sustainable."

Taken literally these two assertions suggest that national regulatory bodies can by some means establish themselves apart from, not just the commercial lives of the industries they regulate, but also from the political lives of their own sponsoring states. It seems likely that in Japan, should Abe prevail in the upcoming elections that the NRA will receive a recalibration by one means or another. It is less clear how a similar normalization of relationships is to happen in the US.

MIssing from the Silverstein review is any mention of the reality that both the World Health Organization and the responsible United Nations standards committee on radiation hazards (UNSCEAR) have concluded that the radiological consequences of the Fukushima accident - as conspicuous as they are to very sensitive detection equipment - will leave no detectable health consequence.

There is a growing body of health physics professional dissatisfaction (cf. for details) with the failure of regulatory authorities to consider and respond to the very large body of cell science, epidimeology, and medical exposure data which demonstrate the inappropriateness of the prevailing Linear No Threshold Hypothesis regarding dose to health consequence estimates.

Given the growing awareness of the latent costs of ever expanding use of fossil fuels, the attitude of nuclear regulatory authorities that radiation is a spectacular exception to every other know hazardous substance is incomprehensible. Without this Myth of Spectacular Exception the expectation that "...fierce independence is a must" is unsubstantiated.

While the public has oftened experienced substantial anxiety in the aftermath of nuclear facility accidents, the prevailing emergency management practice of relying on massive population dislocation is now seen to result in Evacuation Stress Syndrome quite apart from any actual above background radiation exposure. We know from Fukushima that more than a 1000 early deaths can be linked to the stress and strain of lengthy Quality of Life disruptions implemented to protect against negligalbe health hazards.

Precisely at the time when publics would be best served by a candid re-examination of formerly prudent conservatisms in radiological protection regulatory authorities are doubling down on promises of ever higher safety standards. Many of us conclude this is nothing to laud.