Tokyo: Japan on Wednesday launched a highly independent organisation to oversee the safety of its atomic reactors, marking a fresh start in nuclear regulation following the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi complex last year.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority, headed by radiation physicist Shunichi Tanaka, will play a key role in enforcing tougher rules the government has decided to introduce, such as limiting the operation of reactors to 40 years and requiring utilities to apply the latest scientific findings to existing facilities.

The authority is also tasked with formulating criteria for restarting reactors, many of which have been left idled amid heightened public concerns over their safety in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

Of the 50 commercial reactors in the quake-prone country, only two have been put back online.

The organisation has already got off to a rocky start, with lawmakers and civic groups questioning whether Tanaka is appropriate as chairman because he previously served in key positions in entities that contributed to Japan's nuclear energy drive before the Fukushima crisis.

Tanaka has pledged in a paper submitted to the Diet that he will handle regulatory issues by "keeping a distance" from nuclear power plant operators, but the government ended up appointing Tanaka and the four other members under the authority of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, rather than winning Diet approval.

The four others are Kenzo Oshima, former ambassador to the United Nations, Kunihiko Shimazaki from the Coordinating Committee for Earthquake Prediction, Kayoko Nakamura from the Japan Radioisotope Association, and Toyoshi Fuketa from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

The authority's secretariat will consist of around 500 people, including about 350 from the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, according to government officials.

Amid criticism that NISA lacked teeth because it was under the umbrella of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has been promoting nuclear power, the independence of the new organisation is guaranteed legally by giving it a status akin to the country's antimonopoly watchdog, the Japan Fair Trade Commission.


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