TOKYO Japan's parliament began a debate on Tuesday about plans for a new nuclear watchdog, raising hopes of a compromise after months of political bickering that has postponed a tightening of industry oversight after the Fukushima crisis.
The push to create a nuclear regulatory agency is part of Tokyo's efforts to allay public concerns about safety as it nears a decision on restarting some of its idled reactors, all of which have been shut down in the 14 months since Fukushima.
The Fukushima disaster cast a spotlight on cozy ties between regulators, politicians and utilities - known as Japan's "nuclear village" - that critics say was a major factor in failure to avert the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
Some local governments have cited the establishment of a new watchdog as a precondition for restarting offline reactors, while Tokyo has been reluctant to override objections for fear of a backlash.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda had hoped to have a new regulatory agency up and running by April 1 but debate was delayed by infighting in a divided parliament, where the opposition controls the upper house and can block bills.
"There are some gaps ... between the government's bill and the one submitted by the (opposition) Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito party but we share the awareness that it is necessary to set up a new nuclear regulator as soon as possible," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said.
"I assume some revisions may be needed for the bill, but after constructive discussions, I hope we can introduce a new organization and system soon," he told a news conference.
POWERFUL "NUCLEAR VILLAGE"
Both the government and opposition proposals would split the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) from the trade and industry ministry, which has long promoted nuclear power.
The government wants to put the new watchdog under the wing of the environment ministry, while the opposition proposes a more legally independent body.
Who staffs the new agency, however, will be more vital in ensuring tighter oversight and restoring public trust in regulators and utilities than the legal framework, experts said.
"The people need to be neutral and have special skills and knowledge and it is quite difficult to choose such people," said Hiroshi Takahashi, a fellow at Fujitsu Research Institute.
Nuclear power supplied nearly a third of Japan's electricity before Fukushima, but all 50 reactors are now offline for checks. The government is keen to restart two in western Japan before a potential summer power crunch.
"It takes some time to restart the reactors, so this is not something we can debate endlessly," Noda said in an interview with Japanese media on Monday.
Kansai Electric Power Co. operating the two reactors has said it would take six weeks to reconnect them to the grid and the government has asked businesses and consumers in its service area to cut summer electricity usage by 15 percent from 2010 levels if the reactors are not restarted.
Analysts said prospects that Noda will soon decide to restart the two reactors were increasing, interpreting this as a sign that the "nuclear village" is alive and well.
"I think it is foolhardy and way too hasty," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus. "That suggests the 'nuclear village' is still powerful."
(Editing by Daniel Magnowski)