A satellite image of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the March earthquake and tsunami.

Japan announce new nuclear safety regulator

Japan is to unveil plans for a new atomic safety regulator which is expected to enforce tougher nuclear safety standards.

Its Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) has been seen as a key factor in Japan's failure to prevent the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis earlier this  year.

Japan's government plans to bring NISA under the Environment Agency and replace it with a new agency responsible for nuclear accident investigations, according to media reports.

"The key is if the new agency will not be independent just in appearance, but if it can actually secure its ability to regulate," said Hideaki Shiroyama, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

Experts have warned that stricter rules alone will not ensure effective oversight of the increasingly unpopular nuclear industry, nor will it be enough to restore public faith in Japan's power companies.

Meltdowns at the Fukushima plant after the March earthquake and tsunami  has damaged public trust, in addition to reports of poor planning and safety lapses that happened before the disaster.

Central Japanese utility Chubu Electric Power Co revealed last week that NISA had asked it to recruit local residents to attend a public forum to manipulate the outcome of a debate on nuclear power in 2007.

"Regulators until now have been reliant on utilities and did not need to be so proactive," Shiroyama said.

"But if the they are going to regulate on their own, then the big issue is how to guarantee their capabilities, sensitivities and resources."

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said Japan should wean itself from dependence on nuclear power, which has been back by around 70 per cent of voters according to a recent poll.

Japan however needs to rely on nuclear reactors at present to avoid power shortages that would harm a fragile economy.

The new nuclear agency will still be part of the government and will be headed by the environment minister.

"This is very problematic," said Tetsunari Iida, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, adding a suggestion that the new director should not represent nuclear industry interests.

Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono has said that he aimed to implement plans for a regulator agency next April, but enabling legislation must first pass the divided parliament, where the opposition controls the upper house.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the plan was one of several ideas under consideration, but no final decision has been made.

An overhaul of Japan's energy policy has also been called for since the Fukushima crisis.

Public concerns over nuclear safety have prevented the restart of reactors shut for routine maintenance, leaving only 16 reactors working out of 54 that were available for power generation before the March 11 disaster, and raising the possibility that no reactors may be running by May 2012.

The Fukushima disaster has also spurred other countries to review their safety standards.

A task force recommended in July that the U.S. nuclear regulator take a tougher approach to safety, which could force plants to plan for catastrophes far more violent than those they were originally designed to withstand.

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