Japan’s parliament, the Diet, approved a controversial government appointee to the country’s nuclear watchdog agency on Wednesday (June 11).
Satoru Tanaka, a 64-year-old professor of nuclear engineering, will start his job as commissioner with the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in September.
The staunch supporter of nuclear power has deep ties to the nuclear industry and has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from affiliated companies over the years.
The appointment—protested loudly from political-opposition and environmentalist quarters—comes against a backdrop of growing pressure from government and industry to restart many of the country’s 48 offline commercial nuclear reactors.
The NRA must review and approve all nuclear-reactor startups.
The plants were shut down after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused three nuclear-reactor-core meltdowns and an ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant 250 kilometres north of Tokyo.
Since then, Japan, which is largely dependent on foreign sources to fill its energy needs, has had to import more fossil fuels, mostly liquefied natural gas and thermal coal, along with some crude oil, to make up for the electricity that nuclear power used to supply (about 30 percent).
New NRA commissioner terms extended
The upper house, the House of Councillors, also approved appointee Akira Ishiwatari, 61, a geologist and professor at Tohoku University, in a majority vote at a plenary meeting. Both of the commissioner appointments to the five-member NRA cleared the lower house, the House of Representatives, the previous day, according to the Japan News.
The outgoing commissioners served two-year terms; the new terms are for five years. The two other commissioners’ three-year terms expire in 2015, and NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka’s five-year tenure ends in 2017. It is widely expected that the ruling Shinzō Abe administration will then appoint Satoru Tanaka as chair.
Ishiwatari is taking the place of commissioner Kenzo Oshima, 71, a former undersecretary-general at the UN.
It is the appointment of Tanaka, though, and the pending retirement of the person he is replacing, Kunihiko Shimazaki, that has led to accusations of bias, especially from opposition politicians, anti-nuclear activists, and Fukushima Prefecture residents and evacuees.
Fukushima residents angered
Hiroaki Kanno, 66, a Fukushima doctor who evacuated from Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, told the Asahi Shimbun on June 11: “The personnel replacement is advantageous to those who want to restart reactors, and will render the current nuclear regulations ineffective."
Another Fukushima Prefecture resident, former teacher Ruiko Muto, 60, from Tamura, said Abe is breaking rules introduced by the previous administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan. “It is lunacy that the Abe administration is attempting to appoint Tanaka, an obviously ineligible figure, as commissioner,” she told the left-of-centre Asahi Shimbun, Japan's second-largest newspaper.
Nuclear industry disliked outgoing commissioner
The departing Shimazaki (currently NRA acting chairman) is a 68-year-old seismologist whose exacting standards for safety reviews and nuclear-facility inspections have drawn criticism and anger from nuclear-industry officials and the business community in general, especially from areas that received economic benefits from nuclear-reactor complexes.
His demand for upgrades in forecasts for earthquake risk sank plans for an early restart of Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Sendai reactor in Kagoshima Prefecture. This reactor is expected to be one of the first in Japan to come back online, perhaps in several months. The Asahi Shimbun quoted an unnamed Kyushu executive as saying: "Shimazaki made us suffer."
In a May 28 editorial, conservative newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest, wrote of Shimazaki: “He has issued extremely detailed instructions at nearly every safety review session. Doing so makes progress in conducting efficient safety inspections difficult. Shimazaki’s attitude toward safety reviews has been characterized by unscientific thinking. This issue was evident, for instance, in his demand during a review regarding an active fault under Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga nuclear power station in Fukui Prefecture. He insisted it must be proven that the fault underneath the facility is never active.”
The depth of official disapproval of Shimazaki became apparent when the ruling LDP's deputy policy chief, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, said at a May 9 policy-committee meeting: "While it is acceptable to have seismologists on the NRA, the same cannot be said for someone who knows absolutely nothing about nuclear energy."
Activists say NRA compromised
Tomoko Abe, an antinuclear politician and alternative-energy activist, told Reuters news agency on June 10: “Bringing someone like [Tanaka] on as a regulator changes the fundamental role of the NRA. This nomination could undermine the very role of the regulator.”
And antinuclear activist Tetsunari Iida, executive director of Japan’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, also told the news agency: “The main objective of this shuffle is to remove commissioner Shimazaki. The industry would never be satisfied if he wasn’t replaced.”
Shimazaki has not spoken publicly about his retirement from the authority.
Fukushima disaster gave birth to NRA
In September 2012, the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) established the NRA to salvage the public trust and resolve organizational conflicts regarding nuclear-safety regulation and administration after the 2011 disaster.
The NRA replaced the Nuclear Safety Commission and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), both of which were widely perceived as being friendly with the nuclear industry. Because NISA had reported to the federal body responsible for promoting nuclear power in Japan, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), the new NRA was put under the umbrella of the Ministry of Environment.
Soon after, in December of 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), led by current prime minister Shinzō Abe, came to power. Abe is in favour of restarting the country’s nuclear reactors, and Tanaka—who spoke of rebooting the reactors just eight months after Fukushima—told the Asahi Shimbun in 2012: “Nuclear energy is still a technology that is needed in terms of energy security as well as for its contributions to the industrial sector.”
All nuke reboots must get NRA approval
The new agency had a mandate to review existing nuclear-safety standards and establish new safety rules. It imposed new standards in July 2013, and Japan’s electrical utilities have pledged to spend $15 billion to upgrade their plants.
The NRA also must review safety applications to approve restarts of the idled nuclear reactors; all must pass the reviews before resuming operations. The Asahi Shimbun reported on May 28 that the NRA had received applications to reactivate 18 reactors at 11 nuclear-power plants. None have been approved so far, although a new application on June 10—the day before the Diet’s expected approval of Tanaka—by Tohoku Electric Power Co. to restart its Higashidori plant in Aomori Prefecture attracted criticism because the NRA is currently investigating whether or not a seismically active geologic fault runs under the plant.
The Japan Times (May 27) said Tohoku took the plant offline for “routine maintenance and inspections” just weeks before the Fukushima No. 1 events in 2011 and wants to restart to “ensure a stable power supply in its service area”. Tohoku claims that the geologic fault is inactive.
(The authority has also examined faults underneath Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga plant and Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi plant, both in Fukui Prefecture.)
Appointee received nuclear-industry cash
The Xinhua news agency reported on June 11 that the DPJ and six other, smaller parties voted as an opposition bloc, in vain, against Tanaka’s appointment due to alleged “financial improprieties with energy-related organizations, including Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), operator of the disaster-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex”.
Tanaka, a professor since 1994 in the University of Tokyo’s department of nuclear engineering and management, is a former president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan, a former chair of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, and, according to World Nuclear News (June 10), has advised a research foundation supported by TEPCO. Asahi Shimbun has reported that Tanaka also served on METI nuclear-energy committees.
What has many critics upset regarding Tanaka’s NRA appointment are reports (Japan Times, June 7) that TEPCO donated about $1,170,000 over four years (2008 to 2011) to support a University of Tokyo nuclear-fuel-cycle course taught by Tanaka to train people for the industry (the course was dropped after the Fukushima crisis).
"Research grants" came from nuke builders
As well, a Reuters public-information request to Tokyo University revealed that between 2004 and 2010, Tanaka received research grants totalling $58,500 from Hitachi Ltd.’s nuclear division, Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy Ltd., and Electric Power Development Co. Ltd., which is building a nuclear plant in northern Japan. And Japan’s Jiji news service reported that the TEPCO Memorial Foundation (set up by Tokyo Electric Power’s predecessor company) paid Tanaka about $30,000 over five years until March 31, 2012.
In addition, the professor accepted almost $20,000 from Taiheiyo Consultant Co., a company that researches disposal of nuclear waste.
Hideyuki Ban, of Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, told Reuters on June 10 that even though there have always been ties between academics and industry, “it is a matter of the degree of money you receive.”
NRA conflict rule ignored by Abe administration
When the Democratic Party of Japan established the NRA, then–prime minister Naoto Kan implemented a rule to prevent conflicts of interest. It stopped anyone from becoming an NRA commissioner who had been employed by a nuclear organization in the three preceding years, which was defined as someone receiving $5,000 per year from the nuclear industry during that time period.
It appears that the Liberal Democratic Party has ignored that rule.
Tanaka has not responded to most requests for interviews, and when he has spoken he has not answered questions about his suitability as an unbiased candidate for NRA commissioner.