Japan has failed to create a revamped nuclear regulatory agency by the promised date of April 1, raising questions about its commitment to bolster oversight in the wake of last year’s crisis.
Authorities have been accused of lax regulation and supervision of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors after a massive earthquake and tsunami led to a meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
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Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet has endorsed a bill to create a more powerful and independent regulatory body that would unify various nuclear safety and regulatory offices and be placed under the environment agency.
Currently, the main regulatory body, the Nuclear Industrial and Safety Agency (NISA), is under the control of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which also promotes nuclear power in the resource-poor country.
But progress in setting up the new agency has been slowed by disagreements between the ruling and opposition parties over how much independence it should have, as well by unrelated disputes such as a proposed sales tax hike.
“Obviously, having promoters and regulators under the same roof is not desirable, and we must unify related agencies that are scattered around,” Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, who is also in charge of nuclear crisis management, told a parliamentary committee on Monday.
He called the delay “regrettable.”
The government has not set a new target date.
This news comes less than one week after Japanese media reported that radiation levels inside one of the containment vessels at the Fukushima powerplant are so high that even robots fail to function correctly. The 73 sieverts per hour of radiation would cause their measurement instruments to malfunction.
Errors and regrets
Previous investigations into the Fukushima accident have found evidence of lax supervision by NISA, cozy relations with utilities and delays in upgrading safety measures.
On Monday, an NSC member told the same parliamentary committee that NISA repeatedly tried to block her commission’s efforts in 2006 to upgrade nuclear accident management plans, saying it would cause unnecessary safety concerns and additional costs.
NSC was trying to extend the government’s evacuation guidelines to 30km from 8-10kmto match revisions by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.
Shizuyo Kusumi, a radiation expert and one of five NSC members, said NISA was “very persistent” in its intervention.
“I now regret our revision was delayed,” she said.
“We were not fully independent and I hope the lessons will be used in a new agency.”
In a memo dated April 24, 2006, NISA told the NSC, “We urge you to freeze this matter because it could trigger confusion and escalate public fear over nuclear safety.”
All but one of Japan’s 54 reactors are currently shut down, most of them for regular safety checks, and officials are desperately trying to avoid power shortages. The last remaining reactor is scheduled to go offline in early May.