Investigator Calls for Atomic Power Global Black Box

The Nation (Thailand)

December 18, 2013

The global atomic power industry needs to share cross-border information to prevent nuclear accidents, replicating the transparency of international air-traffic control, said the head of the investigation into Japan's Fukushima disaster.

Nuclear plant operators and regulators need an international common language and standard for investigating and preventing disasters, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who headed the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said in an interview in Tokyo.

The airline industry offers a model in the use of flight and voice data recorders, known as black boxes, as a globally accepted means of recording and investigating accidents, he said.

The transparency derived from intrusive international oversight in the nuclear industry is necessary to prevent the collusion that contributed to the Fukushima disaster, Kurokawa said. That isn't happening yet with Japan's regulator.

"Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority seems very isolated not only from the domestic power industry but also from counterparts abroad," he said. "Isolation in one nation is a very dangerous thing."

Kurokawa, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy in Tokyo, was special adviser to the cabinet and Japan's representative at the World Health Organization. He is the former dean at Tokai University School of Medicine and professor at Tokyo University School of Medicine and the medical school at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Scathing report

He led the six-month investigation into the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (Tepco) Dai-Ichi atomic station 240 kilometers north of Tokyo.

He won wide-ranging subpoena powers, giving his team of 10 commissioners unprecedented authority to conduct the investigation. He also insisted on public hearings, which saw former prime minister Naoto Kan and Tepco's then-president Masataka Shimizu offer conflicting accounts of the disaster response.

Kurokawa's report released in July last year was scathing in its account of events leading up to March 11 and the response that followed, calling the disaster man-made and citing "collusion" between Tepco and its previous regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, to avoid implementing new safety rules.

"Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power," according to the report.

Nuclear watchdog

While the report won acclaim abroad, including an award for Kurokawa from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012, its findings were mostly ignored at home with bureaucrats unable or unwilling to grasp its call for more outside-the-box thinking, Kurokawa said.

Japan has followed through on at least one of the report's recommendations by setting up an independent nuclear watchdog. The Nuclear Regulation Authority, or NRA, was established last year and now has more than 500 staff. It also has control over three other organizations that employ experts to research and monitor nuclear energy.

Still, the NRA needs more international experience and should send staff abroad to learn best practices, gain experience and create links to other nuclear regulators, said Kurokawa.

"The NRA has been exchanging information with foreign regulators such as the NRC and the ASN to enhance mutual understanding and competency," said Tadashi Yamada, spokesman for the NRA's Policy Review and Public Affairs Division, referring to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and France's nuclear safety authority.

While the NRA's legal independence is a step in the right direction, it needs to be more transparent about what it's doing, Kurokawa said.

That is especially important as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to restart some of the country's 50 reactors idled since Fukushima for safety checks, he said.

"The prime minister is attempting to get the economy growing and dealing with national security policies, so the mess at Fukushima, where the world's largest cache of molten nuclear fuel lies trapped beneath the wreckage of reactor buildings, is maybe not top of the agenda for Abe," Kurokawa said.

Japan's nine regional nuclear power utilities retain strong influence in Japanese politics and are lobbying to delay by several years legislation to split the country's grid from generating plants, Kurokawa said.

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