Power market developments: Regulators

Towards enhanced nuclear safety in Japan

20 April 2012

To avoid the recurrence of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in March 2011, and to restore public trust in nuclear power, which has been heavily shaken, efforts have been made by the Japanese government and the nuclear industry. By Masahito Kinoshita

The Japanese government has been in the process of rebuilding its regulatory system. In January the Cabinet approved the relevant bills to reform its nuclear safety regulation, aiming at improving effectiveness in its regulatory function. Main points include: organizational restructuring, introduction of new nuclear regulation, and enhanced crisis management, in line with the December 2011 recommendations provided by the Advisory Committee for Prevention of Nuclear Accidents (available via www.neimagazine.com/fdgovt).

Independent regulatory agency

A unified nuclear regulatory agency, tentatively named the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRA), will be expected to be set up in April 2012. The agency, stipulated as an external organ of the Ministry of Environment, is to be inaugurated with a workforce of as many as 495 officers and a budget of approx. JPY 50 billion (US $611 million). Currently, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) operates with approx. 400 officers and JPY 40 billion. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology runs approx. 50 officers and a JPY 0.8 billion budget for nuclear research facilities. NRA will mainly consist of these officers.

This agency incorporates the current regulatory body, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), and will become completely separated from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) which also functions for nuclear power promotion via its Agency of Natural Resources end Energy (ANRE). The Ministry’s structural duality had often been pointed out as a problem that could have a negative effect on nuclear regulatory oversight. In 2007 IAEA’s IRRS review of Japanese regulatory systems had also suggested that NISA was effectively independent from ANRE and METI, but it could be reflected in the legislation more clearly in future.

NRA is expected to exercise its regulatory role independently from pressures and influences by parties concerned. Its top official, the NRA commissioner, will have the authority to make an administrative decision on nuclear safety regulation, appoint and dismiss officials independently, recommend to relevant government organization heads for ensuring nuclear safety, and utilize an independent account from the national budget.

In an effort to ensure the new agency’s independence from the governmental body for promoting nuclear power, a so-called ‘no return rule’ in staffing will be applied to the agency officers. This rule means that top senior officials that join the new agency on loan from METI/NISA and MEXT will not be allowed to come back to their original ministries. It is understood that the rule will be limited to the seven senior officials. For the 12 middle-class-management post officers, the rule will be applicable in principle, but with some exceptions.

Regulatory and safety-related functions previously implemented by other ministries, such as regulation of research reactors, environmental radiation monitoring and radiation protection in emergencies, and matters on nuclear security will be united in NRA. Entire departments are likely to be transferred.

Another institutional effort is to establish the Nuclear Safety Investigation Committee (NSIC), a council-type third-party body associated with NRA. This is aimed to ensure NRA’s independence, to review objectively the NRA’s effectiveness in regulatory actions, and to investigate nuclear accidents.

New regulations

The new regulations places an emphasis on severe accident measures at nuclear facilities. Regulatory standards and criteria for nuclear facilities will be revised to be stricter, and severe accident management including diversified AC/DC power supplies and improved vent systems will be required by law. Such measures have been so far dealt with by utilities as voluntary actions. Comprehensive risk assessment of the safety design and operation of each reactor will also be required.

The new regulations will apply recent findings and the latest knowledge to safety-related matters to existing nuclear facilities (through a process of retrofitting).

In principle, operation of power reactors will be limited to 40 years. A certain period of operational extension could be approved on one-time-only basis, if assessment of the aging of the facility and the operator’s technical ability to conserve the facility could be confirmed. However, whether this operational limitation is grounded on clear scientific knowledge or not represents a controversial point.

Under the new regulations, nuclear operators will take responsibility for constantly improving the safety of the facilities. In this context, implementing necessary measures for nuclear disaster prevention will be stipulated. Nuclear operators’ quality assurance activities will be required not only in the operational stage but from the design and construction stages.

The approach of the nuclear industry

A new initiative has been discussed following the accident. The chairman of the Federation of Power Companies (FEPC) announced in January its plans to launch an independent organization in 2012 to further promote improvement of safety of nuclear power plants, including measures against severe accidents. Preparatory work is being done in cooperation with industry organization the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute.

The new organization is designed to build a network among nuclear industries, including nuclear plant vendors and fuel manufacturers in Japan, and work in close relation with overseas organizations to serve as a hub for gathering information, both domestic and overseas, for studying safety improvement measures. The new organization will also give suggestions, instructions and recommendations to individual power companies. Then the power companies will have to promptly carry out the necessary measures. The new organization will work independently to make decisions without being influenced by the power companies and will be given an effective institutional system, including the staffing of highly expert personnel. This organization is expected to serve as a Japanese version of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in the USA.

The utilities’ federation regards such a mechanism necessary to facilitate the timely and extensive incorporation of safety enhancements and the latest knowledge of Japan and abroad. Therefore, this mechanism should not fall into becoming a mere formality but must remain effective. External reviews and recommendations of it must be encouraged. Top management must have firm resolve and mental commitment.

How new structures will work

Whether a new regulatory agency will be workable or not really matters when the primary responsibility to ensure safety lies in the nuclear power companies. High regulatory quality in nuclear power is of great importance. In this context, the following points are of vital importance for the new regulatory agency to fulfil its mission for future.

  • In view of the importance of responsibility of an organization engaged in nuclear regulation, it is essential that the agency should make judgments based on high moral correctness and highly sophisticated expertise in carrying out its operations.
  • The agency should establish clear judgment criteria for ensuring safety, make objective and fair judgments based on such criteria, ensure the transparency of regulatory processes as a whole, and fulfil its accountability about these points to the people.
  • Taking into consideration the inherently international nature of nuclear technology, the agency should constantly promote reviews and improvements with the aim of implementing more scientific and rational regulations that are based on new international knowledge and findings, operational and maintenance experience, and analyses of accidents both at home and abroad.

Other challenges now lie before the regulatory reform. Investigations into the accident are underway at national and private-sector levels. It is anticipated that results of such investigatory studies may raise an important issue on the new structure for nuclear regulation and safety. It is now unclear whether the bills to reform governmental regulation, which at time of writing were expected to be deliberated at the national legislature (the Diet) will pass smoothly. A counter-proposal to make the regulatory body completely independent from any ministry have been presented by the opposition party, seeking a similar regulatory structure to the US. These circumstances may make the scheduled start-up of the new regulator in April difficult.

With enhanced safety, nuclear power should contribute to stable energy supply for the future. Utilities, the new industry organization, and the new regulatory agency should work as designed. In addition, other players including technical support and stakeholder organizations such as the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum will be expected to play a continued role in Japan’s nuclear future.

Author Info:

Masahito Kinoshita, general manager, Department of Information and Communication, Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, Inc. ([email protected]).

This article was published in the April 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.

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