Although the Nuclear Regulation Authority has decided to give the green light to Tokyo Electric Power Co. to restart nuclear reactors, we question the fitness of the utility, which is responsible for the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, to manage nuclear facilities.

The NRA has been screening TEPCO’s application to resume operations of the No. 6 and No. 7 boiling-water reactors at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture.

The NRA on Sept. 13 acknowledged with conditions that TEPCO is eligible for operating nuclear plants after examining the company's safety culture and other issues.

The nuclear safety watchdog said it will make TEPCO incorporate a written pledge by TEPCO President Tomoaki Kobayakawa to secure safe operations into its safety code. Kobayakawa promised to put higher priority on safety than on profitability. The NRA made clear it also has the power to order TEPCO to suspend its reactor operations or rescind the utility’s license if a serious violation is found.

Establishing an effective system to monitor the company’s nuclear power operations to ensure their safety is one thing. Assessing the utility’s fitness to operate reactors is another.

Why is the NRA in such a rush to make the decision when it still harbors doubts about TEPCO’s eligibility to operate nuclear reactors?

Was the move in any way driven by a desire on the part of Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the NRA, to settle the issue by the end of his five-year term, which is due to expire soon?

It is hard to deny the impression that the NRA has unnecessarily rushed into the decision, as it is clearly premature.

A corporate safety culture usually deteriorates in a five-stage process--with each marked, respectively, by overconfidence, complacency, disregard, danger and collapse.

TEPCO’s safety culture was already collapsed before the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, as indicated by a series of scandals involving the company’s attempts to cover up safety problems and falsify data.

That’s how TEPCO itself summed up the root causes of the catastrophic accident in a report published in 2013.

In an attempt to fix its corporate culture, TEPCO established an oversight committee, which includes independent members and regularly receives reports from the management team. The utility has also published a somewhat self-congratulatory report on the effectiveness of measures it has taken.

It was revealed only last year, however, that the company’s president at the time of the Fukushima accident told employees not to use the term “core meltdown” in describing what was unfolding.

It has also been disclosed that TEPCO had failed to inform the regulator that the earthquake resistance of a key facility at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant was insufficient.

Only last month, it emerged that TEPCO had seriously delayed announcing that falling levels of underground water being pumped up at the Fukushima plant set off an alarm. The NRA bitterly criticized the delay, saying the suspicion that TEPCO was still in the habit of “covering up inconvenient facts and deceiving people” could not be avoided.

Why then, has the NRA concluded there is “no reason” to proclaim that TEPCO is unfit to operate nuclear reactors?

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, many critics, both at home and abroad, pointed out that both the operators and regulators of nuclear plants in Japan focus too much on hardware, such as facilities and equipment.

All operators of nuclear plants in Japan, not just TEPCO, face the challenge of reforming the way they manage their organizations as well as the mind-set among their employees in order to foster and firmly establish a safety culture.

Even the more stringent reactor regulations imposed by the NRA after the triple meltdown in 2011 are not effective enough in this respect.

Evaluating a utility’s fitness to operate nuclear plants is a new task for the NRA.

A special task force set up by the body started working on the criteria and procedures for such evaluations in July. The team is expected to produce an interim report on its work by the end of the year.

Here’s how the NRA should tackle this challenge. It should first establish effective guidelines for eligibility assessments. Then, it should apply the guidelines to the screening of specific plans to restart reactors to ensure that a solid safety culture underpins the operations of all nuclear reactors.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 14