New Japanese nuclear regulatory agency must assert its opinion as confusion around Fukushima disaster still lingers

Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

Publish date: March 13, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

TOKYO – By its own understated account, the nuclear regulatory body that was reconstituted in Japan is suffering from a public relations crisis, given its goals of openness and honesty that are meant to supplant the crony system of the past nuclear regulator, whose close ties to industry led to oversights that made the Fukushima Daiichi disaster possible, according to a Japanese officials.

The old Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which, together with Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, and the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), issued nearly laughably conflicting reports about radiation released following the tsunami that hit Fukushima Daiici on March  11, 2011, have been disbanded, and the NRA is now in charge.

As of July, all of Japan’s nuclear reactors will be subject to new tests, according to Toshihiro Bannai, safety regulations coordinator for international affairs at the NRA, and these tests – which will also take into account public opinion in the areas where Japans’ 50 operable reactors are located – will be stringent.

But the NRA seems to be having a core difficulty in spreading its message: 70 percent of Japan is opposed to a restart of the reactors that have been idled since 3/11 as it had come to be known in local parlance, according to a February 18 poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The new agency also suffers, says the NRA’s safety regulation coordinator for international affairs, Toshihiro Bannai, from a crossover of officials from NISA, which has a damaging effect on the NRA’s credibility before the public as it struggles to deal not only with reactor restarts, but the ongoing crisis at the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi plant.

“Most are saying that we are nothing but a reconstitution of NISA, which is defunct, and many are saying that we have not changed from the old industry, “ said Bannai in an interview with Bellona here in Tokyo. And he was open about the fact that many of NISA’s employees had to be transferred to the NRA to assure continuity.

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But Bannai insisted that there is a new sheriff in town under the NRA’s watch, and that all of Japan’s nuclear reactors – including the two that are in operation at Oi – will undergo more strenuous checks on the NRA’s watch come July when the Agency is able to codify its new standard. The Oi reactors, which were switched on over the summer amid government pleas of an energy shortage, will have to meet new standards to continue operation, and cease operations in September to undergo the NRA’s new testing criteria.

But with the majority of public opinion turned against anything nuclear, the NRA has had a hard time expressing its message. Despite the two press conferences the NRA has held to convey its message, the public remains skeptical of anything relayed to it by a government agency – a new phenomenon amongst the Japanese public.

“The NRA needs to engage in a more concerted effort to express to the Japanese public that it means business about evaluating the suitability of the country’s shut down reactors,” said Nils Bøhmer, Bellona’s general director and nuclear physicist who is here in Japan with other Bellona staff.

“Their goals are admirable and a distinct departure from the past crony system – they just need to present that in a palatable way,” said Bøhmer.

Whole energy system in free fall

Takashi Matsumoto, deputy director of the agency for natural resources and energy at the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry  (METI), underscored that the entirely of Japan’ energy strategy was being considered.  

He said that Japan’s energy needs were currently being met by oil and liquefied natural as (LNG) imports, the latter of which have led the country’s first trades deficits over the past two years in 31 years.

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Prices for gas to Japan are linked to oil prices, thus the country is paying five to six times more than US priced for the same commodities.  Japan will therefor petition for a Fair Trade Agreement with the US to take advantage of enormous shale gas surpluses there. The pursuit of shale gas in the US is still very much an environmental hot potato, posing, as it does, risks to ground water, and high releases of methane gas, the most potent of greenhouse gasses, into the atmosphere.

But Japan, said Matsumoto, is not engaged in the regulatory battles over how shale gas will be controlled by the US Department of Energy (DoE): Japan needs cheap gas now.

“I understand that the DoE is responsible for making decisions about export of this gas – we want to buy cheap gas from the US, and have no say in the regulatory battles there,” said Matsumoto.

Japan leaning more on renewables – in word

Matsumoto said Japan would also be relying more on its renewables sector, but tables he presented to Bellona show that only some 9 to 12 percent of Japan’s energy mix have been accounted for renewables –primarily solar power.

But he also presented data that the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that the bulk of Japan’s future energy would be coming from gas imports, oil and nuclear energy, implying a switch on of more nuclear power plants in compliance with the new NRA regulations, while at the same time increasing Japan’s carbon footprint.

“japan had pledged a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions, but the disaster at Fukushima changed things drastically,” Matsumoto told Bellona. He added that those reduction commitments were made under the ousted government of former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose stance was heavily anti-nuclear following the Fukushima disaster.

Matsumoto added that the government will be going into talks about how to handle Japan’s energy mix on March 25, but added that he had no idea when the government would be able to offer a climate change strategy.

“We are starting from scratch with our energy policy,” he said. “So the new government is reconsidering whether the 25 percent reduction [in CO2} is possible.”

Incoming Prime Minster Shizo Abe is heavily in favor of getting Japan’s 50 nuclear stations back online, and has dumped plans by the Kan government to shutter nuclear power by 2040. But Matsumoto noted that the Abe government is equally in favor of pursuing renewable sources as well – but also considers them unreliable.

Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the 30-year-old Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) here in Tokyo told Bellona in an interview at his office that Abe’s commitment to renewable energy is mere lip service.

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“[Abe] says renewables are a priority, but I am not convinced,” Ban said.

For the time being, only solar has yielded effective results. Wind power would also be effective, but Matsumoto said that Japan has made few inroads on the wind path, though he expects wind power facilities to grow under the new administration.

Feedi-in Tariffs

Renewable energy would be introduced under a feed-in tariff scheme, meaning that if Japanese power utilities request such power mechanisms, they would be doing so at a long-term period that would be guaranteed by the government, and utilities would be obligated to accept the terms of the request.

The CNIC’s Ban was unsure of how long such a system would last, and Matsumoto could offer no time frames either, though Matsumoto said that the government plans to expand its renewable energy portfolio via the feed tariff scheme.

Bending the law toward energy efficiency

Japan’s current energy conservation law extends only to industry, and placing on it obligations to other private commercial organizations and Japanese household remains only a recommendation.

Matsumoto admitted that application of the law remained muddled.

“Much industry is a part of the private sector so it is confusing,” he said. “We want to encourage voluntary compliance, but in the absence of sweeping energy conservation laws, we can only ask that private entities comply on a voluntary basis.”

He added that new builds of private dwellings could, under the law, be policed in terms of the kinds of materials contractors are allowed to buy, but again, the law was only an inducement and carried no regulatory power.

Given Japan’s foreseeable reliance on fossil fuels like coal, Matsumoto said METI was taking carbon sequestration and storage into consideration, but that high costs made its immediate implementation unlikely.

“At the moment, we are focused on achieving low gas prices,” he said. “That is the priority.”

The future of Japan’s nuclear regulation

Bannai admitted that the oversights of NISA where manifold and that the NRA will seek – even with many former NISA officials in its ranks of some 500 experts – to close the human error and crony gaps that were cited in a government report on the Fukushima disaster.

This report, said Bannai, stated bluntly that NISA staff was lacking in the technological competence to deal with the Fukushima disaster. This he chalked up to the arrogance of Japanese nuclear authorities who failed to take note of international information on accidents, especially 1986’s Chernobyl catastrophe.

“The Swedes and the Finns put new regulations in place following that disaster,”Bannai told Bellona. “But NISA did take those measures into account.”

He strongly condemned the previous nuclear regulatory body for not keeping abreast of international developments and promised the NRA would.

“Japanese officials at that time were simply unaware of information that was being shared within Europe and frankly didn’t care,” said Bannai.  “We are now active in international forums, and have to admit that NISA was not up to speed in this sector.”

Bannai admitted in a room full of former NISA officials that that NISA was lulled  by so-called safety myths.

“[NISA] just thought that serious accidents would never occur here, so didn’t take such scenarios seriously,” he said. “Because of that, we [the NRA] want to share what happened at Fukushima at an international level, and the missteps that led to the catastrophe.”

This, he said, would involve a thorough retraining of radiation inspection authorities.

The nuclear waste problem

The CNIC’s Ban’s concerns centers around how much nuclear fuel is currently left onsite at Fukushima –much of it irreparably damaged and requiring technologies that don’t yet exist for its removal.

In total, as of 2010 figures, Japan is home to 13,520 tons of spent nuclear fuel. Some 2270 tons of that are stored at the Rokushō reprocessing facility. Rokushō is scheduled to open a vitrification facility next year, said CNIC’s Ban, but as the facility has a capacity of only 3000 tons, it will be unable to handle whatever emerges from fuel removal efforts at Fukushima.

Fukushima houses some 482 tons of fuel in each of its six reactors, as well as 1,958 tons of spent nuclear fuel in both individual reactor cooling pools and the plant’s common cooling pool. There are also, according to the CNIC’s figures, another 47 tons in dry cask storage, for a figure reaching well above 2,500 tons that are simply too much for Rokushō to accept.

Of further concern is Fukushima Daiichi’s No 4 reactor’s storage pool, which has been in precarious shape since the earthquake. This facility emerged as a concern after the three hydrogen explosions and meltdowns afflicted reactor Nos 1,2 and 3. Should the rooftop facility collapse, it would result in another catastrophe.

The NRA today showed Bellona how it intends to secure the poll and build cranes to assure the safe removal of the fuel assemblies stores there, but it will take at least another year for the process to be completed in this seismically active zone.

“Tepco’s current priority is to that fuel and put it into dry cask storage as soon as possible,” said Ban, though he offered no special critique of how fast the utility was handling the problem.

“The No 4 reactor building is highly radioactive, and the current equipment in the form of cranes to remove the fuel  is not working,” he said. “Tepco is doing the best it can.”

Ban said however that measurement of radiation released from the disaster are hardly conclusive, calling into question a recent report by the UN’s World Health Organization, which stated that cancer risks to those living within the 20 kilometer exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi are minimal.

“I am curious about the rate of internal exposure and I am uncertain about the WHOs calculation methods,” said Ban.

Three case of thyroid caner have thus far  been identified in the Fukushima region and each patient received surgery to remove the tumors. Another 5 patients prognoses have not yet been determine by Fukushima Medical University, which has been accused by various humanitarian medical services of secreting information.

This is the last in a series of articles Bellona has written from Japan.