JAPAN | Time to split watchdog from N-proponent

Posted on July 31, 2011

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JAPAN | YOMIURI SHIMBUN | 31 July 2011

Can the organization that promotes nuclear power also serve effectively as that industry’s watchdog?

Criticism has been expressed within the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry about having the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency as a special organization in the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, which promotes nuclear energy. This structure effectively means the same organization is responsible for both regulating and promoting nuclear energy.

Although the safety agency ostensibly regulates nuclear energy while remaining independent, the reality is somewhat more complicated.

“I think the current system, in which the energy agency explains the need for nuclear power and the safety agency backs this up by explaining how safe nuclear power is, goes against common sense,” said Kyushu University Vice President Hitoshi Yoshioka, a member of the government’s accident investigation and examination committee. Yoshioka has attended nuclear power explanatory meetings for residents.

“It’s obvious that the safety agency should be separate from and independent of the energy agency. Some drastic changes are needed, including in the thinking of our bureaucrats,” Yoshioka said.

An economy ministry official who once worked for the nuclear safety agency believes that agency staffers could never take on major enterprises when disagreements arose.

“Agency staffers don’t usually work there for their whole careers, so there’s a limit to the restrictions they can impose on companies,” he admitted.

Agency employees get transferred to other posts within the ministry, just like officials in other sections. If workers provoke a major company while at the agency, it could come back to haunt them if they have to deal with that firm again after being transferred to another section.

According to the official, the most commonly followed policy is, “Don’t make waves.”

Plans to snap these cozy ties and clarify responsibility for safety regulations by making the agency independent were included in Japanese government reports submitted to the ministerial-level meeting at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna last month.

However, Tetsunari Iida, executive director at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, said problems lie not only in the agency but in the ministry itself.

“Bureaucrats are supposed to support the government. But this time, bureaucrats seemed to have gone beyond this role and acted with political intentions,” Iida said. “I think the ministry needs to be drastically reformed.”

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Posted in: JAPAN