JapanThursday, September 21

Japan's Nuclear Watchdog Chief Retires

Japan's nuclear watchdog chief will step down this week after a challenging term. Shunichi Tanaka was brought in after the 2011 nuclear disaster to assess the safety of the country's reactors.

Tanaka looked back over the 5 years he spent in the role. "I believe we have been able to establish a way to regulate nuclear power despite starting from scratch," he said.

In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, all of the country's nuclear power plants were shut down. It was decided an independent Nuclear Regulation Authority was needed to oversee them and the possibility of safely restarting them. Tanaka was chosen as its first chairman. "Our most important task is to recover trust in the nuclear administration," he said at the time.

The former head of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute is a native of Fukushima Prefecture -- an area that received the brunt of the radiation. His mission was to inspect the country's nuclear power plants and decide whether they passed stricter regulations brought in after the disaster. "Our first priority is on making neutral, scientific judgments. Then to let the public know about that process so we can have more transparency," he said.

Since his start, Tanaka has overseen screening restart applications for 26 reactors at 16 different power plants. The green light was given to 6 plants. During the process, he was slammed from both sides.

Some lawmakers and local governments wanted reactors to be turned on more quickly. "I think the screening is taking too much time. It's an important process, but I want them to go through it without delay," Fukui Prefecture Governor Issei Nishikawa told Tanaka.

But civic groups said nuclear power shouldn't be used at all. For Tanaka, that's something that needs more political discussion. "I want lawmakers to give frank opinions at the Diet on whether to continue or stop using nuclear energy. Japan will not be a mature society without going through a true debate," Tanaka said.

Now that his tenure is over, Tanaka says he will go back to Fukushima prefecture. He says he wants to play a role in helping people. "I want to help people who long to go back home and there are many of them. I hope I can make use of my expertise," he says.

Tanaka will officially step down on Friday. His replacement is Toyoshi Fuketa, a nuclear reactor safety expert who has worked as an aide of Tanaka.

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