PM: Japan's nuke regulators need more independence

AP News
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Posted: May 18, 2011 12:58 PM
PM: Japan's nuke regulators need more independence

Japan's prime minister acknowledged Wednesday that the recent nuclear accident underscored that his country's nuclear regulators need more independence from the industry to ensure safety.

Those comments came the same week that new data seemed to belie some of the industry's claims of preparedness: The documents raised concerns that the earthquake may have done more damage than previously thought _ undermining the operator's assurances that the plant could withstand a major quake. In addition, the new data poked holes in claims that an emergency venting system _ which failed in the power outage early in the crisis _ would avert a severe accident.

In Japan, a single ministry is responsible for both promoting nuclear energy and overseeing its safety, unlike most other nuclear power-producing nations that separate the two functions.

Critics say that structure has resulted in lax oversight and may have contributed to a lack of precautions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which is leaking radiation after being damaged in March's massive quake and tsunami.

"Entities that promote and check nuclear energy belong to the same government institution, which raises a question of independence," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a news conference where he also promised a thorough review of the nuclear power industry and its regulators.

"We don't necessarily have a sturdy structure in this regard," he said.

An Associated Press review of Japan's approach to nuclear plant safety has also revealed that closely intertwined relationships between government regulators and industry have allowed a culture of complacency to prevail.

Top government officials nearing the end of their careers often land plum jobs within the industries they regulated, giving Japan's utilities intimate familiarity with their overseers. Top industry officials are also appointed to positions on policy-shaping government advisory panels.

Kan's comments are some of the strongest on regulatory reforms since the March 11 quake, although various other senior government officials have raised the issue.

They come after Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the damaged plant, released data from the first few days of the crisis for the first time this week, complying with a government request last month. The new information _ hundreds of pages of parameters, graphs and duty workers' logs _ has revealed greater-than-suspected damage and provided insight into the myriad failures at the plant.

For instance, it showed repeated attempts to open pressure-release safety valves and vents remotely did not work presumably because of the power outage. The goal was to release the pressure building as reactors overheated; eventually, that pressure led to explosions at three of the troubled reactors.

There is evidence that at least one attempt to open the valves manually was made on the morning of March 12, and another attempt was aborted due to high radiation, but the data offered no other details on why it wasn't successful in preventing the explosions.

The failure of the manual attempts could indicate an even greater breakdown of the system, but officials seemed to back off that broad a conclusion Wednesday. Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency official Yusuke Terasaki would only point to the power loss in explaining the venting failures.

Government officials also defended the system of vents _ which was upgraded only several years ago to handle "severe accidents" _ saying that it was TEPCO's delay in turning to venting that caused the explosions, not a failure of the system itself.

"If venting had been conducted sooner, we could have kept the damage from worsening this far," said Nuclear Safety Commission chief Haruki Madarame told a parliamentary session this week. Officials said TEPCO did not start venting until about 10 hours after it first agreed to under government pressure and three hours after Prime Minister Naoto Kan finally issued a rare order.

Still, the new data point to yet another feature that delivered less than promised at Fukushima.

The data have also fed concerns that the earthquake may have dealt greater damage to the reactors than previously thought, raising questions about claims the plant could withstand major quakes.

After its release, the nuclear agency ordered TEPCO this week to determine what damage at the plant was caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and what resulted from the subsequent tsunami.

Until now, TEPCO has maintained that the tsunami caused most of the damage to the plant, including knocking out cooling systems, which caused fuel rods to overheat and almost completely melt, releasing tremendous amounts of radiation.

Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said Wednesday that the tsunami is still thought to be the main cause of power outages, but a review would confirm that view.

On Wednesday, four workers briefly entered the highly radioactive Unit 2 reactor building for the first time since the explosion to assess its condition, TEPCO spokesman Junichi Matsumoto said.

TEPCO hopes to bring it to a cold, stable shutdown by early next year.