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The Great East Japan Earthquake

Building a Mechanism for Regulation of Nuclear Power

Yoshiaki Oka
Professor (Cooperative major in Nuclear Energy), Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

The TEPCO Fukushima accident caused severe trouble for the public, beginning with the citizens of Fukushima prefecture, and we must ensure that an accident such as this never occurs again.

1. The accident is rooted in the mechanisms and culture of the government in Japan

Giant tsunamis that exceeded expectations in the event of such an earthquake were the direct cause of this accident, but although experts had identified the potential for such a scenario in meetings on safety inspections, the findings of these experts were not heeded. In reflecting on how it is that such a situation came to pass, I realize that the expression unforeseen does not suffice, but rather that it is deeply rooted in the particular issues and culture of Japan.

The fundamental issue is the lack of accountability in the structure of the government in Japan as well as the backroom and village favored in Japanese culture. The problem is deeply rooted, and it is not unique to government and businesses involved in nuclear power. It is vital that we are well aware of this point first in the course of reform. Nuclear regulatory reform is certainly not merely a matter of organization building through changing the ministries in charge. A fundamental overhaul of the mechanism and consciousness are required.

The biggest difference between the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and nuclear regulation in Japan is that there are numerous commissions for each subject (some 170; as a look at the municipal office website reveals) and they rely on the expertise of external commissions in Japan. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in contrast, has a great many highly knowledgeable professional engineers who take responsibility themselves and conduct governmental regulation at their own discretion.

There are nearly no technical experts akin to those in the United States among senior government officials in nuclear regulation in Japan, and the organization that is particular to Japan-with a lack of accountability and ambiguity in accountability-entrusts external experts and committee members, and relies on expertise and judgments from a vast number of commissions.

Another major difference between nuclear regulation in Japan and that in the U.S. is the structure with an awareness of authority in Japanese ministries and agencies, involving a controlling authority above the applicant and nuclear operator. There is no such structure of a controlling authority above nuclear operators in the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In Japan, these authorities flaunted their power demanding that operators comply, but this involved the incompleteness or the lack of guidance and regulation, and was a root cause of the significant nuclear safety issues to date, including the major accident that occurred this time.

The nuclear industry in Japan comprises a special inward structure. Although it is changing slightly as manufacturers seek to develop nuclear reactors overseas, this inward structure applies not only to nuclear power, but rather it is part of the particular structure and culture of Japan, and a cause contributing to the prolonged recession. As a result of the inward structure, electric companies and manufacturers formed a powerful and integrated nuclear power village, which influenced the structure of regulations and the energy industry in Japan, and this must be regarded as a factor of the accident in Fukushima.

2. On creating the arena for nuclear regulation

A transparent mechanism is vital in order to engage in serious debate over nuclear safety regulations on the part of regulators and nuclear operators. An apt analogy would be the image of two boxers (a regulator and an operator) squaring off for the pitched battle (exchange) of a bout in the boxing ring as spectators look on. Sometimes these bouts are broadcast on television. Unlike boxing, however, regulation is not a matter of winning or losing a bout, and nuclear operators must comply with the safety regulations and guidance procedures that are set by the regulators.

The rules of the ring would include, for example, that the operator and the regulatory side are equal on the ring, that requests, opinions, and the results of studies be presented in writing rather than orally, and that hidden activities outside the ring is strictly prohibited.

In order to engage in a true bout, we must not merely defer to the power of regulatory authority, but rather, we must put a system in place in which regulators and operators compete with sincerity and accountability on equal footing to ensure safety.

It is important to distinguish between the promotion and the regulation of nuclear power. The fact that boxers compete openly in the ring for all to see plays a major role in the high expectations for them to perform. We urge regulators to carefully consider safety, operators to carefully consider their responses, and both sides to publicly debate the results. This is the true separation of promotion and regulation. Considering the regulatory administration done by the NRC in the U.S., we find that they do not have the image of both sides butting heads at every turn, but rather, they have the image of performing regulatory work with transparency, and in turn increasing the viability and effectiveness of safety and regulation. Advisory committees comprising outside safety experts helps to enhance safety assurance and predict potential problems, administrative oversight committees are in place as a mechanism for the public to check the government, and the work of the NRC is examined/monitored with published results. Congress determines the budget and number of seats each year.

3. Building a regulatory system with accountability and training experts with deep knowledge

Accountability cannot be taken without having technical skills, and even when there are personnel who have the technical ability, the system will not function unless the appropriate people are appointed.

The Japanese government is unique in that there are no technical experts with deep knowledge among senior government officials. It is the nature of the position that senior government officials continuously change departments, and as a result they are not able to gain deep knowledge in a specific field. There are, however, senior government officials who are charged with nuclear regulatory responsibilities. These responsibilities clearly entail budget and personnel affairs as well as nuclear regulation by ministries and agencies in charge of nuclear power. Even when institute researchers and university teachers are appointed to municipal offices, they have not worked many years doing regulatory work at these offices, they have no authority in personnel matters, and no authority in budget matters, so it is very difficult to argue that they can fulfill these responsibilities.

Some 50% of personnel on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission are technical experts, and 25 to 30% percent of personnel have doctoral degrees. I wonder how many senior government officials in Japan have doctoral degrees in the field of nuclear power. The NRC also has its own educational training system designed to enhance the abilities of its personnel.

Some experts who hold doctoral degrees enter independent administrative institutions in charge of research and development, where they need to apply their abilities through nuclear regulatory research. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has commissioned a safety study by national laboratories of the Department of Energy and universities. About half of the U.S. safety research budget is used to study undetermined large core meltdown accidents, which is helping to build the scientific basis for regulation. Doctoral students in the U.S. are able to make a living by using external funds obtained through research grants, which plays a significant role in training personnel in the field of safety.

4. Independence, openness, effectiveness, transparency, and reliability as the motto of Nuclear Regulatory Administration

This is the motto of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The trust of the people cannot be earned without relentless efforts and improvements toward the goals of this motto through a regulatory system that is capable and accountable.

At a meeting of the American Nuclear Society in Fall 2011, experts (government officials) from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy charged with responsibilities in their respective fields held panel discussions on the experience and response of the government, including: nuclear regulation, the accident in Fukushima and its impact, the lessons of past nuclear accidents, the recovery in the wake of this accident, and the long term response. Such presentations by officials themselves would be impossible if they did not have such deep expertise and first-hand experience.

In hearing the lectures and questions, it was clear not only what the history and current situation in the field was in the U.S., but also an overview of the U.S. government response to the accident in Fukushima, and indirectly I could surmise the response of the Japanese government. This is true openness. Going forward, we would hope that through such academic meetings government officials become accountable for ensuring safety in Japan as well.

An overview of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Q&A, and the like are available at the lab website:

Yoshiaki Oka
Professor (Cooperative major in Nuclear Energy), Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Born in 1946, Dr. Oka is an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo and a past president of the Atomic Energy Society of Japan. He specializes in nuclear reactor engineering and his major publications include a series of nuclear studies textbooks titled Nuclear Reactor Design [Genshiro Sekkei] (Ohmsha) as well as Super Light Water Reactors and Super Fast Reactors and Advances in Light Water Reactor Technologies (Springer). His invention, the super light water reactor, has been studied worldwide as a fourth generation nuclear power reactor.

For more on the laboratory's activities, click here:

Tokyo City University and Waseda University, Cooperative major in Nuclear Energy