Japan might unveil plans as early as this week for a new atomic safety regulator which is expected to lead to tougher safety standards and higher costs for nuclear power operators.
The current watchdog’s cosy ties with the industry are widely seen as a key contributing factor in Japan’s failure to prevent the worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.
In an attempt to address this, the government plans to merge the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) with another government advisory body to be placed under the Environment Agency, according to media reports. The announcement of that plan is expected tomorrow.
The move could mean stricter rules, but experts warn that it alone will not ensure effective oversight of the increasingly unpopular nuclear industry, nor will it be enough to restore public faith in Japan’s power companies.
“The key is if the new agency will not be independent just in appearance, but if it can actually secure its ability to regulate,” University of Tokyo professor Hideaki Shiroyama said.
Damaged by the meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant triggered by a huge quake and tsunami in March, public trust has since been shattered by reports of poor planning and safety lapses that happened before the disaster.
Suspicion deepened further last week after central Japanese utility Chubu Electric Power Co revealed that NISA had asked it to recruit local residents to attend a public forum to manipulate the outcome of a debate on nuclear power in 2007.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said Japan should wean itself from dependence on nuclear power, although for now it needs to rely on nuclear reactors to avoid power shortages that would harm a fragile economy.
A recent poll showed that about 70 percent of Japanese voters -back Kan’s call.
The new agency, which will also be responsible for the investigation of nuclear accidents would still be part of the government and headed by the environment minister, the Nikkei newspaper said.
“You can’t appoint the -environment minister ... This is very problematic,” Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies executive director Tetsunari Iida said.
Japanese Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono has said that he aims to implement plans for a regulator agency in April next year, but enabling legislation must first be passed by a divided parliament, where the opposition controls the upper house.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the plan reported by the Asahi and Nikkei newspapers yesterday was one of several ideas under consideration, but no final decision had been made.
Public concerns over nuclear safety have prevented the restart of reactors shut for routine maintenance, leaving only 16 reactors working out of 54 that were available for power generation before the March 11 disaster and raising the possibility that no reactors may be running by May next year.
The Fukushima disaster also spurred other countries to review their safety standards. A task force recommended last month that the US nuclear regulator should force plants to plan for catastrophes far more violent than those they were originally designed to withstand.