One month has passed since Toyoshi Fuketa became the second person to chair the government’s Nuclear Regulation Authority.

Fuketa served as NRA commissioner and deputy chairman under Shunichi Tanaka, his predecessor, who led the nuclear watchdog for the first five years of its existence. He is now facing the test of addressing unfinished tasks on the basis of a foundation that he built with Tanaka.

The NRA, which was set up and tasked with renovating nuclear safety administration in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, has set the goals of transparency and independence.

The NRA has made great strides in ensuring transparency.

Most of the NRA’s meetings are open to the public, except when they concern anti-terrorism measures and other topics. Its meeting documents and the content of discussions can be checked out on the NRA website. Videos and transcripts are available of the chairman’s weekly news conferences. All that sets an example of such a level that other government offices should emulate.

It could also be said that independence has been improved over the previous state of things, wherein regulators were criticized for their cozy relationship with electric utilities.

There are lingering problems, however, in the NRA’s “conformity” screenings, whereby the watchdog decides whether a nuclear reactor should be allowed to go back online in light of the new regulation standards.

Too much weight is given to the equipment and other aspects during the evaluation process, and there is insufficient screening of organizational management and worker awareness at electric utilities.

The task of setting up control over restarted nuclear reactors that are up and running also allows no time to be wasted.

While primary responsibility for preventing accidents lies with electric utilities, it is up to the NRA and the NRA secretariat, which is its work unit, to keep a sharp watch on any problems such as slighting safety and a lack of training.

Key to that mission will be engaging in “dialogue” with electric power operators.

The nuclear watchdog should stay in contact with electric utilities through on-site visits and other means while remaining alert to signs of any deterioration in the culture of safety. That makes it indispensable for the watchdog to brush up its skills in seeing through any attempts to pull the wool over their eyes.

All that is a global trend, but Japan has been left out. The NRA should combine dialogue with snap inspections and other methods for maintaining a sense of tension to enhance safety.

Fuketa is sending NRA secretariat officials to be trained in the United States. He is also hoping to hire a U.S. consultant firm that is well-versed in inspection duties.

Fuketa should make the most of the wisdom acquired by pioneers.

The NRA’s potential for dialogue will also be tested in areas where humans have less than sufficient knowledge, such as studies on earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The watchdog should maintain extensive interactions with expert scientists and aim for regulation that is based on state-of-the-art insight.

Ryuichi Yoneyama, governor of Niigata Prefecture, has asked the NRA for explanations on its recent decision that two reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in the prefecture “conform” to more stringent reactor regulations for being restarted.

More than a few local governments in areas hosting nuclear plants are feeling they are distanced from the NRA.

NRA officials should think about having more opportunities to visit the front lines, listen to the public’s views and thereby reflect on their own duties.

While it is important to keep pursuing independence, everything would be lost if that were to lead to isolation or self-complacency.

There should be extensive dialogue on various levels to help improve on safety.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 30