Japan’s nuclear watchdog isn’t policing its own safety standards

A watchdog that isn’t watching is no watchdog at all.

Greenpeace radiation expert Rianne Teule, assisted by Stan Vincent, checks for nuclear contamination with a Gamma Spectrometer on the beach beside Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, which suffered damage during Monday's earthquake. The quake occurred 10 km out to sea on the coast beside the Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Plant, causing damage in the town and the deaths of 10 people. The Nuclear Plant also suffered damage, resulting in leaks of nuclear materials. Greenpeace sent a specialist rapid reaction team to the Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant soon after the earthquake to make independent nuclear checks in cooperation with national community groups.20 Jul, 2007

It emerged last week that Japan’s nuclear watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) is failing to conduct adequate safety checks at the country’s nuclear reactors.

It’s like this: in 2012, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the then nuclear watchdog (more like nuclear lapdog), the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) was abolished. NISA was a branch of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and also had the responsibility to promote nuclear energy in Japan.

You can see the problem. An organisation that was supposed to hold the nuclear industry to account while promoting nuclear energy? NISA had to go.

And so the NRA was born with a mandate enshrined in law to draw up and police safety procedures and protocols that would aim to prevent another Fukushima.

In the light of recent events, it would seem the NRA is failing miserably in its duty.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has announced that approximately 2,000 cables have been incorrectly installed at two of its nuclear power plants – Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and Fukushima Daini (the sister plant of Fukushima Daiichi which was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami).

It was found that cables used for the day to day running of the plants’ reactors were not separate from cables for the safety systems as they should be.

It’s basic common sense: if the safety cables aren’t separate from the rest of the system and there’s an accident, the safety system is compromised along with everything else. If your safety system is compromised, you’re in big trouble.

The kicker?

The Nuclear Regulation Authority failed to conduct on-site inspections to determine if safety equipment cables were installed separately from other cables.

The NRA doesn’t conduct visual inspections of these cables! It relies completely on the honesty on the nuclear operators.

As we’ve seen in the past, this isn’t a very sensible policy. For example, TEPCO was warned in 2008 that tsunami defences at Fukushima No. 1 were inadequate but ignored and covered up the warning. We all know what happened three years later: earthquake, tsunami and meltdown.

This is just two nuclear plants we’re talking about right now. How many more might be compromised? How can the problem be fixed? The NRA simply doesn’t know.

“At present, we can’t deny the possibility that other cables are mixed at pressurized-water reactors, but how to handle the problem has yet to be decided,” it has said.

The Japanese government and nuclear industry are currently in a reckless, headlong rush to restart the country’s idle nuclear reactors in the face of major concerns about those reactors’ safety.

The last thing the Japanese people need is a nuclear “watchdog” asleep on the job.

The potential risks from this problem cannot be understated – but it is just one of multiple nuclear  safety issues that remain unresolved, ignored and brushed aside both by nuclear power utilities and the NRA.

In the coming months, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will conduct a review of the NRA – the first since its inception in 2012. If the IAEA were up to the job, its review would be robust, critical and transparent.

Unfortunately, we have no confidence that it will be. One international nuclear lapdog reviewing another domestic lapdog is no way to oversee an industry that, in the event of an accident, can threaten the existence of a society. That was the reality faced by Japanese Prime Minister Kan after Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission gave him the then-confidential worst case scenario for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe while the disaster was still unfolding in March 2011.

The majority of the people of Japan do not believe that nuclear power can be made safe – one of the primary reasons that at the end of 2015 only two reactors out of a possible 43 are operating. Japanese civil society, including Greenpeace, will continue the fight into next year to stop further nuclear reactor restarts. We are committed to helping to bring about the energy future that is affordable, attainable and that guarantees no future nuclear reactor disasters or nuclear victims – and that is a Japanese society based on renewable energy.

In the year of the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi accident and thirty years after the Chernobyl accident the nuclear-free, renewable energy future is not only possible, but is what Japan, and the rest of the world, deserve and will achieve. 

Justin McKeating is a nuclear blogger for Greenpeace International, based in the UK.

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