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Apr 25, 9:47 PM EDT

Japan to raise nuke safety check competency per IAEA review


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TOKYO (AP) -- Japanese nuclear regulators said they will revise laws, nearly double inspection staff and send some inspectors to the U.S. for training to address deficiencies cited by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority announced the plans Monday in response to an IAEA evaluation of Japan's nuclear safety regulations since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The report was submitted to the government last week.

The IAEA review, its first since the Japanese nuclear authority's establishment in 2012, was conducted in January to determine whether the country's new regulatory system meets international standards. The IAEA report said even though Japan has adopted stricter safety requirements for plant operators, inspections are reactive, inflexible and lack free access. The report noted that the nuclear authority has made efforts to increase its transparency and independence.

The authority's commissioners met Monday and decided to give inspectors greater discretion and free access to data, equipment and facilities.

Current on-site checks have largely become a choreographed routine. Inspectors' requests for access to data and equipment outside of regular quarterly inspections are not mandatory, and there is no penalty for plant operators that fail to meet safety requirements. Inspections also tend to be limited to a checklist of minimum requirements.

The IAEA report came as nuclear safety concerns increased among the Japanese public following two powerful deadly earthquakes in southern Japan.

Three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns in March 2011 following a massive earthquake and tsunami. A series of investigations have blamed safety complacency, inadequate crisis management skills, a failure to keep up with international safety standards, and collusion between regulators and the nuclear industry as the main contributing causes of the disaster.

The authority plans to revise laws next year and enact them in 2020 to implement the IAEA's recommendations, officials said Monday.

The authority also said it would increase the size and competency of its staff. The IAEA urged Japan to develop training programs and step up safety research and cooperation with organizations inside and outside the country.

Japan plans to send five inspectors to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year for training in nuclear safety inspections. The trainees will be sent to NRC regional offices and its technical training center in Tennessee, according to Shuichi Kaneko, an authority official.

"We look to the U.S. as a model," he said. "We are finally beginning to catch up, though a framework is not there yet."

While the 1,000 U.S. inspectors are given two years of training, Japan has only 150 staffers who receive just a two-week basic course, Kaneko said. He said on-site inspections at each plant in the U.S. average 2,000 hours a year, and only 168 hours in Japan.

The authority plans to start hiring more staff next spring and eventually increase its staff by at least 100 to adapt to increased inspection needs, Kaneko said. Theoretically, to match U.S. safety inspection levels, Japan would need at least 250 inspectors.

Japan largely ignored an IAEA review in 2007 that concluded that its inspection system was inadequate.

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This story has been corrected to say previous IAEA review was in 2007 instead of 2008.

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