Tokyo's efforts to restore trust in nuclear power hit new snag

Fri Jul 20, 2012 4:13am EDT

Related Topics

* Media leaks prevent nomination of five candidates to new regulatory commission

* Limited pool of qualified candidates for positions

* Critics say candidates too close to nuclear industry and promoters

By Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO, July 20 (Reuters) - Japan's government suffered a fresh setback on Friday in its efforts to restore trust in nuclear power, shattered by the Fukushima crisis, when media leaks forced it to delay nominating candidates for a new atomic safety watchdog.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has approved restarts of two reactors shut down for safety checks to avoid a potentially crippling summer power crunch -- all 50 reactors in operation in Japan had been taken off line. Now he faces growing pressure from anti-nuclear protests and deepening public distrust of power utilities and government bureaucrats.

The delay in appointments to the new regulatory commission, to be launched in September, comes days after the government drew fire over its handling of public hearings on energy policy. It also follows an anti-nuclear rally which drew more than 100,000 demonstrators on Monday.

The nomination of five candidates was called off after several newspapers reported the names of the candidates, prompting lawmakers to seek government clarification. The nominees must be approved by parliament.

In principle, lawmakers refuse to consider nominations to key posts if they have been leaked to the media, forcing the delay in presenting the slate to parliament. It was unclear whether the nominations would go ahead, with some media saying an exception to the "no leak" rule was possible, given the limited pool of qualified candidates.

Newspapers reported on Friday that the government had picked Shunichi Tanaka, 67, an expert in radiation physics and a former deputy head of the Cabinet Office's Atomic Energy Commission, to head the new safety regulator.

The government hopes that the new safety body will instil more confidence than the two current regulatory bodies, both heavily criticised for their cosy ties with the power industry.

CREDIBILITY TEST

Experts say the safety commission's credibility will hinge on its members, but finding people with the necessary expertise who are not clearly linked to either the nuclear industry or the opposing camp is difficult.

Tanaka drew mixed reviews from anti-nuclear groups.

Critics said he represented Japan's "nuclear village" -- a powerful nexus of politicians, utilities and regulators that experts say was a major factor in the failure to avert the Fukushima crisis triggered by the huge earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

"I was surprised," opposition lawmaker Tomoko Abe, who leads a nonpartisan group seeking to ditch atomic power, told Reuters.

"Tanaka was serving for the Atomic Energy Commission and its role in the state nuclear management has been called into question ... I'm not questioning his personal ability, but the fact that he comes from the 'nuclear village'," Abe said, citing Tanaka's efforts in decontamination after last year's disaster.

Kazue Suzuki, nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace Japan, said appointing representatives of the "nuclear village" would undermine the original aim of separating the regulatory body from one promoting nuclear energy.

However, Hideyuki Ban, secretary-general of Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, offered a more positive take, noting how after the Fukushima disaster Tanaka spoke of the need to reflect on the way nuclear power had been promoted.

"He is not someone who wants to promote nuclear power at any cost," Ban said. "We can be somewhat positive, but we cannot have great hopes."

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Ron Popeski)

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