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[Speaking Out] Japan's Nuclear Power Regulator Needs Urgent Reform

Poor guidance and draconian sanctions can lower morale at nuclear power plants. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on performance.



Regular meeting of the Nuclear Regulation Authority on May 17 in Minato Ward, Tokyo.(© Kyodo)

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) on May 17 decided not to lift the de facto ban on the operation of Tokyo Electric Power Co's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata Prefecture. This was due to the insufficient improvement in two out of six requirements concerning counterterrorism measures.

The current NRA regulations are similar to the former nuclear regulatory approach of the United States. Previously, the regulatory body wielded its authority to impose sanctions on nuclear power plant operators for even minor defects. This severely damaged the operating performance of nuclear power plants. 

Learn From US Regulatory Reforms

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was established in 1975 following organizational reform. But soon thereafter a severe accident occurred at the Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2 nuclear power station in 1979. 

At the time, US President Jimmy Carter delegated full authority to Harold Denton, the director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the NRC. This enabled Denton to respond promptly to the accident. Although a core meltdown occurred, the accident was brought under control by venting steam from the containment vessel. 

Media reports on the steam venting caused panic locally, but radioactive contamination in the area was prevented. This was in stark contrast to the situation during the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident following the Great East Japan Earthquake. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's interference through Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) executives caused great confusion in responses to the accident.

After the TMI accident, the NRC introduced a rigorous regulatory method known as SALP (Systematic Assessment of Licensee Performance). It was a kind of nuclear reactor operators' capability assessment scheme that involved meticulously scoring each requirement. The NRC imposed tough sanctions on nuclear power plants that had low ratings. 

As a result, morale among personnel and managers at nuclear plants across the United States plummeted. In turn, it caused numerous incidents, both major and minor. This greatly decreased the operating performance and capacity factor of power plants throughout the US. 

nuclear power
A sign explains the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident that occurred in 1979 with active cooling towers in the background in Middletown, Pennsylvania, US, on March 18, 2011. (© Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Boosting Morale and Performance

Subsequently, the NRC came under fire from Congress and industry and faced a crisis of survival. In response, the NRC engaged in serious discussions on how to improve its regulatory methods. The result was the current reactor supervision system called the Reactor Oversight Process (ROP). 

The success of this system can be attributed to the shift from the "north wind" policy to the "sun" policy in Aesopian terms. Well-performing power plants were only inspected for essential items. But poorly-performing power plants were given more thorough inspections and guidance from the NRC, ensuring fairness.

Inspectors identified high-risk malfunctions that might affect operating performance. These were further color-coded and published for easy understanding. If a plant's "report card" was good, its stock price would rise. Management also honored high-performing employees as an incentive to improve the report card. 


The system also incorporated Japan's approach of "safety first" and "zero accidents," which boosted the motivation of personnel. This led to better results and the capacity factor of nuclear power plants across the US increased to the 90% range.

Don't Demoralize Plant Operators 

The current NRA Chairman Shinsuke Yamanaka has been relentlessly interrogating the president of TEPCO over the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. This has demoralized the company's employees. Furthermore, the NRA suspended its screening of Japan Atomic Power Co's Tsuruga Nuclear Power Station Unit 2 in Fukui Prefecture after finding many mistakes in relevant documents. But a poor regulatory approach could also induce mistakes on the part of power companies. 

Shinsuke Yamanaka, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, answers questions at a press conference on May 17 in Minato Ward, Tokyo. (© Kyodo)

While power companies are primarily responsible for safety and anti-terrorism measures, the NRA also holds supervisory responsibilities. In terms of a sports match, an inexperienced coach cannot bring out the players' strength with shaky guidance.

Similarly, the inadequate performance of power companies can be attributed to the NRA's poor regulatory approach. Just like the US has done, Japan requires a fundamental reform of its nuclear regulatory body.


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1040 in Japanese on May 22 and in English on May 25, 2023.)

Author: Tadashi Narabayashi

Tadashi Narabayashi is a specially appointed professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and a director at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.

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