TOKYO | The relationship between Japan's government and its private electrical power industry is like a free-spinning revolving door, with bureaucrats and business executives trading places at the expense of nuclear safety.
The disaster at a nuclear plant owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. that sent the country in an emotional meltdown illustrates the point.
The government’s regulatory policy amounted to this:
Trust Tepco and do not verify.
A review of Japan’s approach to nuclear plant safety shows how closely intertwined relationships between government regulators and industry have allowed a culture of complacency to prevail.
Perhaps no one illustrates the movement between business and government and back again better than Tokio Kano. He joined Tepco in 1957 and became a leader in the utility’s nuclear unit in 1989. By 1998, he entered Japan's parliament as a candidate for a seat given to the nation’s largest business lobbying group.
In parliament, Mr. Kano helped rewrite national policy that enshrined nuclear power as the energy of Japan’s future.
After two six-year terms, he returned to Tepco in July as an adviser. The utility declined to make him available for an interview.
Regulators, meanwhile, simply did not see it as their role to pick apart Tepco’s raw data and computer modeling to judge for themselves whether the plant was sufficiently protected from a tsunami, like the massive wave that struck after the March 11 earthquake and flooded the cooling pumps at the utility’s Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Fukushima in northeastern Japan.
This kind of willful ignorance was not unique within a sympathetic bureaucracy at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The agency has multiple functions - some that easily can be viewed as having conflicting goals.
The ministry is charged with touting the benefits of nuclear energy, selling Japanese technology to other countries and regulating domestic nuclear plant safety.
Until January, it was led by a former engineer in the nuclear-plant-design section at Hitachi Ltd.
The United States split those two functions nearly 40 years ago with the closure of its Atomic Energy Commission. Now the U.S. Department of Energy promotes nuclear power, while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission handles safety.
In Japan, where government has long supported major industries, the power utilities that run nuclear plants have enjoyed direct access to regulators.View Entire Story
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