JAPANESE NUCLEAR REGULATORY AUTHORITY LAGS PRECARIOUSLY BEHIND WORLD STANDARDS
A 19-member delegation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will visit Japan on January 14 to reassess its regulatory framework for nuclear and radiation safety.
It will be the second team of senior IAEA specialists to visit Japan since 2016, when 19 experts spent 12 days here to confer with members of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA). Three months later, the IAEA compiled a sternly critical report running 130 pages. The coming visit is aimed at ascertaining to what extent the NRA has made improvements in the problems pointed out previously.
As regards its nuclear power policy, Japan has fallen into an unprecedented situation in which its nuclear power administration, effectively controlled by the NRA, leaves much to be desired. The main reason for the plight is the less than world-class caliber of the five regulators of the NRA, including commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa.
Three years ago, the IAEA had this to say about the NRA:
“The NRA is only in the early stage of development in terms of human resources and administrative structure, particularly in organizational culture. It also seriously lacks personnel capable of fulfilling assigned tasks satisfactorily.” A very stern criticism, I must say.
The NRA’s mission is to scrutinize the safety of nuclear power stations as scientifically, rationally, and expeditiously as possible. It is called on to help power companies restart their nuclear plants by making up deficiencies, thus supporting the nation’s industrial infrastructure with steady power supply and contributing to a realization of affluent lives for its people.
In order to enhance the safety of nuclear power generation, which is a combination of highly sophisticated technologies, the regulation must itself be strictly scientific and rational. Also, the regulatory measures implemented must meet the international standards sanctioned unanimously by the world’s experts.
The NRA must also strive to fully convince the regulated, i.e. electric power companies, of the merits of the new measures and regulations it introduces. Unless the NRA and the electric companies communicate effectively with each other, the highly sophisticated operation of nuclear power plants can hardly go well.
As regards this point, the IAEA recommended in 2016: “The NRA should consider specific measures such as awareness training or surveys to promote and sustain a high level of safety culture in the conduct of its activities.”
Pitiful Group of People
The IAEA said the NRA must first of all change its “awareness” in enhancing the safety of nuclear power generation. For that purpose, it saw the need for the NRA members and those in the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, its secretariat, to engage in “awareness training and surveys” so as to introduce specific measures for improvement by reflecting on their shortcomings.
As things stand now, it is this group of pitiful people in whom we have entrusted the management of our nuclear power—a critical pillar of our country’s energy policy sustaining our daily lives and industrial infrastructure.
The latest example of why IAEA’s severe criticism is well founded can be seen in the new rule set by the NRA last June making it mandatory to install additional fire sensors at nuclear power plants across the nation.
The nuclear reactor regulation law stipulates that fire censors be installed in areas of nuclear power plants where combustible objects, such as lube oil and power cables, are placed. This is an international practice, which Japan has long honored in implementing reliable countermeasures against fires.
But abruptly last June the NRA introduced a new provision for fire prevention that is usually applied to residential housing. Under this provision, fire sensors must be installed in each room, with the standards for installation determined by the range of their detection. The NRA has now applied this regulation to nuclear plants, instructing each power station to additionally install between 1,500 and 2,000 fire sensors.
The electric companies objected across the board, insisting that nearly 1,000 censors had already been installed per plant where necessary, sufficiently meeting international safety standards. But the NRA turned a deaf ear to the companies’ protests that installing 1,500 to 2,000 additional sensors would increase unnecessary risks rather than significantly enhancing the safety of the plants.
Incidentally, the NRA is an independent regulatory body inaugurated during the short-lived Democratic administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan (June-September 2011). It enjoys such independence and authority that even a prime minister would think twice about intervening in its affairs. A government body with such power as the NRA must be careful not to abuse that power, patiently explaining its policies and humbly listening to the opinion of others. But the NRA obviously is unfamiliar with such a mindset. Consequently, the electric companies have had to start installing a vast number of fire sensors and electrical cables in their nuclear power plants.
Let’s draw a little more concrete picture of what this operation involves. These cables begin to function only when they are connected to fire sensor control panels. In other words, the 2,000 fire sensors require 2,000 electrical cables which must be connected to the central control panel after running through the thick walls of nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power stations are guarded by solid concrete bulkheads and earthquake-resisting walls about 1 to 2 meters (3.3 to 6.7 feet) thick to protect workers from exposure to radiation. These are walls already reinforced with numerous thick steel bars, in which the NRA wants holes drilled to put the cables through.
Meanwhile, seawalls measuring up to 20 meters (67 feet) or more in height are built around nuclear power stations. Should the waves surge beyond these walls, the watertight reactor buildings are perfectly water-proof. These were measures—which may well be called “excessive” by world standards—elaborately implemented during large-scale construction works undertaken after the March 11, 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant operated by TEPCO. And yet, the NRA has demanded that several thousand holes be drilled in these walls to run through fire sensor cables—like drilling holes in the hull of a submarine. This will undoubtedly increase the risk of damage to reactor cores and radioactive exposure.
Electric companies have naturally cited these reasons in objecting to the NRA’s instructions, but the NRA obviously does not even realize that it is violating internationally established rules. As a result, nuclear power plants in Japan are faced with an outrageous situation today.
The cables can be passed through walls only during routine annual on-site inspection periods (lasting an average of 50 days) during which nuclear reactors are temporarily suspended. A minimum of four years is deemed necessary to complete the cable-laying work. So Japanese nuclear power plants are faced with an appalling situation in which holes must continue to be drilled in their walls for the next four years—walls that are solidly enhanced with every possible safety measure. If its authoritarian control of regulatory policies is challenged, the NRA will simply point to the power it has as an independent regulatory body. But Japan is a law-abiding nation, where no entity can stand above the law.
As regards the NRA’s annual on-site inspection of nuclear power plants, the Administrative Procedure Act stipulates that, among other things, the NRA clarify requirements for the inspection, refrain from changing those requirements once set, and complete the inspections in approximately two years without undue delay. Shunichi Tanaka, the NRA’s first commissioner (2012-17), initially stated that the inspections would take about a half year. Seven years later, however, inspections have yet to be completed at most nuclear power plants across Japan—a natural turn of events in view of the arbitrary manner in which requirements have been added by the NRA, as I have just outlined above.
In the November 2019 edition of the monthly Sentaku magazine, Tanaka was quoted as saying: “Japan’s nuclear power policy is full of lies. Looking at where we’ve ended up today—including that—it’s full of lies.” What about his words and deeds while he served as the first commissioner? As members of an official administrative body, are Fuketa, who has succeeded Tanaka, and the four other members of the NRA observing the Administrative Procedure Act? The answer obviously is “no.”
While strictly calling the reader’s attention to this point, I am keenly looking forward to the results of the investigations by the IAEA team in Japan next month. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 881 in the December 12, 2019 issue of The Weekly Shincho)