The independence of Japan’s nuclear safety regulator has been questioned after legislators approved a reshuffle today.
A fierce critic of safety practices in the nuclear industry is among the two commissioners stepping down from the five-member panel at the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), while one newly appointed commissioner has received nearly £60,000 from nuclear-related entities over the past decade to fund his academic research.
The NRA's is responsible for reviewing applications to restart reactors, all 48 of which were shut in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and opponents said the changes undermined Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's commitment to an independent watchdog at a time when utilities are pushing to get their idled reactors up and running again.
Japan's lower house of parliament, where Abe has a majority, approved his government's nomination of Satoru Tanaka, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Tokyo and a proponent of nuclear power, as well as geologist Akira Ishiwatari, whose candidacy generated little controversy. The upper house is expected to also give them the greenlight.
"Bringing someone like (Tanaka) on as a regulator changes the fundamental role of the NRA," said Tomoko Abe, an independent anti-nuclear lawmaker not related to the prime minister.
"This nomination could undermine the very role of the regulator."
Industry analysts said any nuclear energy expert in Japan would have received funding from the industry given the decades of close ties between utilities and Japanese academia.
Akihiro Sawa, a research director at the 21st Century Public Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with Japan's biggest business lobby Keidanren, said: "Academic institutions now encourage professors to get research funds and it's very competitive, so his background should not be judged purely on the outside funds he has received."
Tanaka did not respond to emailed requests for comment on the donations, which were detailed in financial disclosures and Japanese media. Tokyo University would not provide contact information for him, citing privacy concerns.
Between the 2004 and 2010 fiscal years, Tanaka received 6 million yen (£35,000) for research from three firms according to disclosures made by Tokyo University: Electric Power Development, known as J-Power, which is building a nuclear plant in northern Japan; reactor maker Hitachi's nuclear division; and Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy.
Japan's Jiji news service said Tanaka also received around 3 million yen over five years to March 31, 2012 from the Tepco Memorial Foundation, an organisation set up by the predecessor company to Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power, or Tepco. A foundation spokesman said Tanaka had been paid for judging research grants but declined to give an amount.
In disclosures to the NRA in April, Tanaka said he received at least 500,000 yen in the year to March 2012 from the foundation. NRA nominees are only required to disclose funding received in the past three years.
For the year to March 2012, Tanaka told the NRA he also received a total of 1.1 million yen from Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy and Taiheiyo Consultant, an engineering firm.
None of the original NRA commissioners received funds from a utility or nuclear plant operator for their research in the three years leading up to their appointment, according to disclosures made when the NRA was set up, though commissioner Toyoshi Fuketa received about 1.5 million yen in 2009-10 from Nuclear Fuel Industries for research he did with Japan's sole producer of nuclear fuel.
The NRA's most critical voice, seismologist Kazuhiko Shimazaki, will retire in September after two years as its deputy, a period in which he angered the industry with safety demands that in one case effectively scuttled a reactor restart.
The government said he and a former Japanese ambassador to the UN, Kenzo Oshima, wanted to leave at the end of their two-year terms, but Shimazaki has not spoken publicly about his retirement and the NRA declined to make him available for comment. It is not clear who will be the NRA's new deputy.
"The main objective of this shuffle is to remove commissioner Shimazaki," said Tetsunari Iida, executive director of Japan's Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, an anti-nucleargroup. "The industry would never be satisfied if he wasn't replaced."
An official at a utility who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic called Shimazaki's retirement a "small victory" and said utilities hoped restarts would now move ahead quickly.
The first restart, at the Sendai reactor on Japan's island of Kyushu, is expected to be approved in the coming months after the utility resubmitted its application following demands from Shimazaki to upgrade its assumptions over earthquake risk.