In response to the maintenance data falsification scandal concerning the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Inc. (TEPCO), the government immediately set up two committees on September 13. One committee is expected to evaluate how the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), an affiliate of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and responsible for the safety regulation of nuclear energy, handled the tip-off remarks submitted to the agency two years before the scandal emerged. The other committee discussed the possibility of establishing a new regulatory system to prevent similar problems from occurring again.
The former, called the evaluation committee on the inspection procedure of the TEPCO data falsification, has been set up under the Ministers Secretariat in METI and is headed by Mr. Kazuo Sato, the former chief of the Nuclear Safety Commission. Mr. Sato used to work in the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute. The latter committee is named the review committee concerning examination of legalizing nuclear safety regulation and is headed by Mr. Shunsuke Kondo, a professor at the University of Tokyo, well known as an advocate of nuclear energy. As is easily imagined from the chairs position, the government was trying to bring an end to the scandal after several meetings and two weeks of public comments. The government proposed amendments of the electricity law at the extraordinary Diet session in mid-November.
Did the evaluation committee succeed in examining NISAs and the then METIs handling of the whistle-blower? Judging from the content of the interim report which was released on October 28, the answer is No. The report never addresses the responsibility of the persons who were involved in the incidents in the past; rather, it has chosen to focus on future measures by drawing lessons from the scandal. One of the central issues is that it is extremely problematic when the official at the Natural Resource and Energy Agency does something as inappropriate as calling TEPCO to inquire if the alleged facts are correct or not. This incident shows a back-scratching alliance between the government and the electric industry. Therefore, it was extremely important to inquire into the responsibilities of those who were involved in this scandal.
The report concludes with rather obvious matters, such as clarifying investigation procedures and methods, strengthening investigation capability, and fostering human resources. The the status of whistle-blowers was legalized in 1999 with the JCO criticality accident as a turning point. The nature of the problem is whether the allegation can be legalized and who is legally allowed to make such a claim. Under current law, only the employees of a company are eligible to prosecute a company. TEPCO and NISA discussed whether the contract worker should be eligible in the TEPCO scandal case. The investigation was only able to proceed when NISA explained that contract workers should be eligible to make allegations. Since the whistle-blower had already been laid off for another reason, the case did not become problematical. Otherwise, it is doubtful that the status (as an employee) of the whistle-blower would have been guaranteed. The report from the evaluation committee recommends that they use a complaint submission system, but it is still doubtful whether the whistle-blowers status would be guaranteed.
The modification of the electricity law proposed preventive measures whereby voluntary inspections are incorporated into the law. Under the law, record-keeping of the voluntary inspection is mandatory, stricter penalties are applied against non-compliance, and the standards for the allowable reactor defects are introduced. The review committee also insists on the thorough disclosure of information to the public and states that increasing organizational transparency is important. However, the voluntary inspection data was not included in the subject of information disclosure. The law mandates the preservation of inspection records, but does not require them to be submitted to the administrative agency.
While many western countries introduced allowable reactor defects standards in the early days of nuclear power plant management, Japan has not adopted such standards. Mr. Toshiaki Enomoto, the former vice president of TEPCO (he resigned from the company to take responsibility for the scandal) explained why Japan has not adopted allowable standards saying, there was a strong social and environmental mood against nuclear energy which has been unique to Japan (Genshiryoku Eye, November 2002). Electric companies and regulatory authorities had agreed on the difficulties in introducing standards that would allow nuclear reactors to continue operating with cracks and rust as long as the level of safety assurance was met, while there was a widespread movement against increasing man-made radioactivity among local residents and citizens. However, as the liberalization of the electricity market progresses, electric power companies will have to adopt the allowable reactor defects standards as pressure to cut costs becomes the overriding priority.
With the introduction of the standards, electric companies, for example, will be able to sustain the operation of nuclear power plants even if the core shroud has cracks as long as half its circumference. The nuclear reactors can continue operation under the new standards where previously they would have had to be stopped for repairs. The Japan Society of Mechanical Engineering (JSME) said that the movement towards introduction of defect standards was set in motion by the Agreement on the Removal of Technical Barriers regarding the Rules of Trade between Global Trading Organizations in 1996. The JSME insists that the regulatory scheme should be changed from specific standards to performance standards.
Performance standards are not concerned with the composition of materials as long as the standards are met. While the government has emphasized that the defect standard permits utilities to introduce new instruments easily, some say it is likely that utilities will seek cheaper instruments made of degraded material. Nuclear industries will lean towards the use of cheaper materials including imported materials under the severe situation faced by nuclear energy. This leads to a fundamental change in Japans nuclear regulatory scheme.
Citizens are mobilizing to organize an opposition campaign against the introduction of the allowable standards and claim that introduction of the standards has the potential to result in an increasing number of nuclear accidents. Fukushima prefecture assembly voted to oppose the introduction of the standards on October 11th, and have submitted an opinion paper to the government.
The governor of Aomori prefecture has requested that the government separate NISA from METI to make it more independent from nuclear interests. NISA is located under the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE) within the METI. Having received the request from the Aomori governor, the government is trying to put an end to the scandal by seeking a compromise whereby NISA will be promoted to the same level as ANRE. On the contrary, citizens continue to demand that nuclear regulatory administration should be completely independent from ministries and agencies. Measures should be taken to end the collusive relations between government and industry. The citizens side calls for the separation of NISA right out of METI, in order to ensure that all information is disclosed and available to the public.