Japan barely improves nuclear regulatory system

YURI KAGEYAMA Associated Press Published:

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) -- Right after three reactors in northeastern Japan sank into meltdowns, the government vowed to sever the cozy relations between the nuclear industry and its regulators. One year later, it has yet to even appoint committee members to scrutinize the "revolving door" of officials landing jobs in the very industries they regulate.

There is little to suggest that the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl has brought substantially new thinking to nuclear regulation in Japan or stronger urgency to improving safety at its 54 reactors. Regulators are still part of the trade ministry, which promotes nuclear power, rather than the environment ministry, as the government proposed months ago.

Only two plants have built up seawalls since the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns, and one of them is Fukushima Dai-ichi. Only one plant has installed the kind of vents that could have prevented the hydrogen explosions that escalated the nuclear crisis. Officials are reviewing the chaotic evacuation of the radioactive zone to improve disaster response, but few concrete steps have been taken.

One thing Japan has done with its nuclear reactors is keep them shut after they're brought offline for regularly scheduled inspections. The new regime of safety checks reactors must pass before they are restarted is one of the few measures regulators have introduced.

So far, none has gotten the go-ahead to restart, leaving only two of the 54 reactors running, and the last two are scheduled to go offline by late April. It's unclear when the reactors will restart, but even when shut down they're still vulnerable to a tsunami because the fuel rods must be kept cool.

The safety checks use computer simulations to see if plants can hold up, or at least avoid a major crisis, if a big earthquake or tsunami hits. Critics say the tests should be more rigorous.

"This is our fate as a nation with so many nuclear plants. All we can do is pray a tsunami won't come," said Hideyuki Ban, who heads the anti-nuclear research group Citizens' Nuclear Information Center and sits on a government panel on atomic energy policy.

Japanese regulators have responded more slowly than their American counterparts did after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.

Sweeping changes by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission included emergency-response planning, worker training and radiation protection. Some critics say the action wasn't enough, but the NRC got started on most of these measures within a year. And unlike Japanese regulators, the NRC was never part of a government agency charged with encouraging development of nuclear energy, the U.S. Department of Energy in its case.

The March 11, 2011, disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant prompted widespread calls to make Japan's nuclear safety agency more independent by taking it out of the trade ministry. A year later, a law to make the change still hasn't passed, and when it might pass is uncertain.

The government also has yet to address the issue of officials who move back and forth between regulatory and industry jobs. The practice of doling out post-retirement jobs to government officials in many sectors is so common Japanese call it "amakudari" or "descent from heaven."

An Associated Press review last year found that of 95 people at three main nuclear regulatory bodies, 26 had been affiliated with the industry or groups that promote nuclear power, typically with government funding. The government has found that 68 former trade ministry officials got jobs at utilities in the last 50 years.

Among the regulators who landed such jobs was Susumu Nakamura, a former senior official at the government Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. He was hired in 2008 at Shikoku Electric Power Co., and was promoted to board member a year later -- a job he still holds.

"Our company will continue to aggressively hire talented people, including former ministry officials who offer appropriate character, leadership and abilities," the company said Thursday in defense of Nakamura's appointment.

Kyushu Electric Power Co.'s Fukuoka city office chief Makoto Kakebayashi also once worked in the trade ministry setting policy. Kyushu Electric said his hiring was appropriate.

The government is in no better position now to discourage the revolving door than it was a year ago, when it simply urged regulatory officials to use "self-restraint."

Attempts to reform the bureaucracy date back decades. The latest campaign began in 2006 under the Liberal Democrats, but they were thrown out of power in 2009, putting change on hold again.

Masashi Nakano, a professor at University of Hyogo who studies amakudari, said the cozy relationship between the government and private sector is so entrenched tough legislation and massive layoffs are needed for a proper fix.

"One would need to wield a giant ax. Otherwise, amakudari is here to stay," he said.

Amakudari is just one of the issues critics of Japan's nuclear regulators are pushing the government to address.

Poor coordination between central and local governments has been identified as a major problem in the evacuation of areas near the Fukushima plant, but local officials say little has been done to fix the problem or develop better evacuation plans.

Local officials say they learned of evacuation orders only when they saw them on TV. They received little or no information on the situation inside the plant. The central government had prediction data from sophisticated monitors that suggested certain towns were in the path of spewing radiation, but that information was not shared with residents.

Around Japan, towns near nuclear plants say they are not confident their plans would work any better than those at Fukushima. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency says it is reviewing contingency plans.

The only seawalls built so far since the tsunami have been at disaster-struck Fukushima Dai-ichi and the nearby Fukushima Dai-ni plant, according to an AP survey of all Japan's 10 utilities.

Fukushima Dai-ichi went into meltdowns because it had been prepared for only 20-foot (6 meter) tsunami despite warnings from experts that far bigger tsunami could strike -- like the 46-foot (14-meter) waves that hit last March.

Chubu Electric Power Co. is finishing the foundation for a 59-foot (18-meter) wall at the Hamaoka plant, which had to be shut down last year over estimates that that it faces about a 90 percent chance of being hit by a magnitude 8.0 or higher quake within 30 years. That wall won't be completed until next year.

One utility said its tsunami wall won't be completed until 2016. Two utilities had no plans at all to build seawalls because the reactors were built on enough high ground. One of two safety reports the government requires to restart reactors was submitted this week for one of those reactors.

Only one plant has added another key safety measure -- new kinds of vents to allow hydrogen to escape from the reactors. At Fukushima Dai-ichi, hydrogen built up and exploded containment buildings. Utilities said they were making technical studies or considering the measure.

Another plant has built new doors that will shut tight during a tsunami and keep delicate equipment dry.

The government learns of such improvements only after they are made, and has no overall assessment on their progress, said Tomohiro Sawada of the government Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

"Their actions are not required by law and so we don't have a way of checking," he said.

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Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi contributed to this report from Tokyo.

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