Nuclear Energy Policy Under a New Government Nuke Info Tokyo No. 132
After winning a landslide victory in the House of Representatives election held on August 30, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has formed a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People’s New Party (PNP). It might be hoped that a change of government would herald a change of nuclear energy policy, but we should not be too sanguine about the chances of a significant improvement. There is a wide range of views about nuclear energy within the DPJ (as indeed there is in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled Japan for most of the last fifty odd years). While minor coalition partner SDP favors a nuclear phase out, its influence on nuclear policy within the new government is likely to be quite limited. PNP is a relatively recent breakaway from the LDP and is unlikely to rock the boat on nuclear energy issues.
The prospects for policy change are likely to depend very much on the ability of civil society to make serious proposals that have the potential to garner widespread support. The first opportunity will be the budget estimates for the 2010 fiscal year. Anyone can see that allocating 20 billion yen for the Monju prototype fast breeder reactor (FBR) is throwing good money after bad. This should be the first item cut from the budget request. Funding for fairyland proposals like the demonstration FBR to follow the Monju prototype should also be reviewed. It should also be obvious that a review of the Atomic Energy Commission’s fundamental policy statement, Framework for Nuclear Energy Policy, should be scheduled as soon as possible.
Before the election DPJ issued a policy Manifesto in which it said that “[w]hile placing safety first and gaining the understanding and confidence of the people,” it would “take steady steps toward the use of nuclear power.” This quote is from the English summary. The same section in the full Japanese version refers also to “secure supply”. Given that Japan’s nuclear power program has been a failure with respect to “safety first”, “secure supply”, and “understanding and confidence of the people”, if the DPJ were to get serious about these issues, that in itself would represent a major change.
In regard to “safety first”, DPJ’s Manifesto states, “a highly independent nuclear safety regulatory commission will be established under Article 3 of the National Government Organization Act.” The existing Nuclear Safety Commission was established within the Cabinet Office in 1978 under the Nuclear Energy Basic Law, the same law that covers the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Article 1 of the Law states, “The Objectives of this Law shall be to secure energy resources in the future, to achieve the progress of science and technology and the promotion of industries by encouraging the research, development and utilization of nuclear power…” Thus NSC’s safety assurance role is compromised from the start by association with the promotion of nuclear energy.
NSC is supposed to act as a double check on the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which regulates the nuclear industry. However, as part of the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the ministry with prime responsibility for promoting nuclear power, NISA’s independence is also compromised. NSC and NISA, or any regulatory body that replaces them, should have nothing to do with the promotion of nuclear power. Serious consideration should also be given to the question of whether the double check relationship should be retained, or whether it would be better to merge NSC and NISA into a single regulatory body. Likewise the question of whether the AEC should continue to exist in its current form should be openly debated.
Another area that should be openly debated is the respective responsibilities of government and industry. DPJ’s Manifesto states, “Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants are long term projects, so the government should take final responsibility for establishing the technology and for the project.” If they are not careful this type of loose wording could have the effect of reinforcing industry’s already irresponsible attitude. Electric power companies have primary responsibility for safety assurance and for dealing with the problems of spent fuel and radioactive waste produced in their nuclear power plants. On the other hand, the role of government is to regulate so that the failures of industry do not lead to nuclear disasters or become an excessive economic burden. Government is also responsible for averting potential disasters when all else fails. In this sense the government has “final responsibility”, but industry must not be allowed to offload its rightful responsibilities onto the government or the general public.
Our hope is that the new government will reassess recent trends that are inconsistent with the principle of “safety first”. These include reducing the time taken for periodic assessments, extending the time between inspections, and life extensions and uprates for aging reactors. We hope the DPJ led government will strive to create a rigorous and rational nuclear regulatory system.
Baku Nishio (CNIC Co-Director)