Japan nominates radiation physicist to head new nuclear safety regulator

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The Japanese government has been working to appoint a new nuclear regulatory body in Japan, which was supposed to be the deciding authority on restarting nuclear reactors, and is months delayed from its promised date of commission.  The new agency takes shape on the heels of another failed attempt to combine industry, government, and academic experts to both regulate and promote the nuclear industry.

The nominations were called off over a week ago when the nominees were leaked in the press which almost caused a complete meltdown in the search for qualified appointees.  Traditionally, the Japanese refuse to consider nominations to key posts if they have been leaked, but this time they chose to exempt the nominations from the “no leak” rule this time, citing the limited pool of qualified candidates.

Not all the difficult decisions take place in the Japanese Parliament, which has been battling back and forth over the shape of the new regulatory body, there has been a lot of contention stemming from the search for candidates who are not visible icons of the nuclear industry, who can be cast in a different light than their predecessors.

The nominees are being identified as low-profile experts, and must be approved by the Diet to be officially appointed, one of the problems being found is that the views of the new commission nominees are not well known, a fact that may not rest well with the Diet or the public.  There is a feeling of enflamed expectation as many discussions are held as to whether or not the nominees may be too closely linked to the “nuclear village.”

Members of the industry are less inclined to give their opinions on the matter, for much the same reason.  “I don’t know what to say, because I have not heard of them,” said Kazuhiko Watanabe, senior researcher of the Japan Electric Power Survey Committee, which was repeated by others that the Wall Street Journal contacted for comment.

There is only but a few degrees of separation at best, for the nation had taken up the model exampled internationally, effectively consolidating its experts and popular figures in the previous agencies, even professors who taught nuclear science and physics in universities have been found to be on the industry payroll, and that has greatly diminished the pool of candidates.

Enter Shunichi Tanaka, an expert in radiation physics, and a former deputy head of the Cabinet Office’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Tanaka was nominated for the new safety watchdog along with four other candidates, the reactor expert Toyoshi Fuketa – deputy chief of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s safety research center, a radiology expert Kayoko Nakamura – of the Japan Radioisotope Association, Kenzo Oshima – former ambassador to the United Nations and seismologist Kunihiko Shimazaki, in an effort which is meant to be a step forward to restoring trust in the government and its officials.

“We’re in an extremely severe situation as to whether we can regain public confidence in the state and the administration,” Environment Minister Goshi Hosono told reporters after the government put forward the nominations to parliament.

Environment Minister Hosono defended Tanaka’s nomination, saying he had already offered “an apology” for the disaster and had contributed to decontamination efforts in his home region.

Hosono has also adamantly said that the problems in the response have mostly arisen from the nuclear safety system itself, and not the experts or officials, “All experts were promoting nuclear technology, because they were part of a country that was promoting it,” he said.  This has only added fuel to what is now an excruciatingly hot fire of contention, as it contradicts statements from many organizations and witnesses in testimony to investigation probes into the Fukushima disaster.

The timing of this appointment is very interesting.  Last week, Japan’s education ministry admitted that it had inappropriately responded to the Fukushima disaster, and one of the key faults found was related to informing residents and addressing parents’ concerns about radiation exposure.

There have been plenty of problems already identified, and many more details yet to be revealed.  Radiation data which was lost or not backed up, radiation detection stations overwhelmed by the earthquake and tsunami, radiation detection stations overwhelmed by the radiation levels, predictive systems data not released in time, communication breakdowns continually broke public trust, and repeatedly forcing international agencies and experts to assess the severity of the disaster on their own, as shown by the failure to properly assess the severity in terms of the international disaster scales and evacuation zone identifications are just some examples.

It didn’t stop with just informing the public and addressing the concerns, the report also admitted the ministry’s mishandling of setting radiation exposure limits for outdoor school activities.  The report highlighted that part of the communication problems were caused because the emergency response program was set up differently than how the manuals regulators used had instructed.

Vice education minister Takashi Kii told reporters that following manuals is not enough to protect people’s lives and assets during emergencies, and added that ministry officials must use their imagination and act without waiting for orders.

Let’s be honest though, the problem was not with the “manuals”, rather the people who found themselves in the cross hairs, on the spot, under pressure, and repeatedly and repetitively cracked, folded, and failed to proactively approach the nuclear disaster.

The manuals might have explained what COULD be done, but they could in no way ENSURE that the instructions would be carried out.  In the end, the individuals involved chose to deviate and apparently not even check the manuals for advice, they knew what they wanted to do and they did it.

Even now the response is limited in capacity and capability to such an extent that no reason exists to rationally justify it.  Prime Minister Noda wrestled the Ohi Nuclear Power Plants restart from the hands of the public, who were making their dissatisfaction clear in a noise that even Noda had to admit he “could hear.”

There are many questions that still need answers.  For example, if there was an unexpected event and radiation release at any nuclear power plant which may be restarted in Japan, how would the new regulating body compile the potential exposures of the surrounding population from Fukushima radiation for the last 15 months, and use that to update evacuation recommendations from a potential accident at any restarted reactors?

During the restart of the Unit 3 and Unit 4 reactors operators experienced over 50 alerts which were all later reported to be “insignificant” and none of which were thought to be more important or in any other way hinder the timing of the restarts.  But maybe the even more concerning details is that the utility has been asked by the complacent Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to test to examine whether or not a earthquake fault lies directly underneath BOTH reactors.

Disaster and uncertainty challenge every individual in many ways, and we can either, react to the shocking nature with which it strikes, or act proactively to protect ourselves from threat before it strikes, efficiently mitigate the damage when it does occur, and respond with overwhelming finality.  A job half-finished is always more extensive and more expensive than securing or better, exceeding the targeted goals the first time.

Source: Japan Today

Source: NHK

Source: Wall Street Journal

Source: Fox Business


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