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4 on Japan nuclear safety team took utility money

    A view of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan. Four members of a Japanese government team assigned to set reactor safety measures received funding from utility companies or atomic industry manufacturers, raising questions about such experts' objectivity as the nation grapples with the nuclear disaster, the Nuclear Regulation Authority said Friday.

TOKYO » Four members of a Japanese government team that sets atomic reactor safety standards received funding from utility companies or nuclear manufacturers, raising questions about their neutrality in the wake of last year’s tsunami-triggered disaster.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority said Friday that Nagoya University Professor Akio Yamamoto received 27.14 million yen ($339,000) over the past three years for research on reactors. That included 6.28 million yen ($79,000) from a subsidiary of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that runs the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant that suffered meltdowns last year.

The authority said three others on the six-member standards team received industry funding. Getting such money is not illegal, but could call the neutrality of the team into question, since the industry would benefit from laxer standards.

The commission had asked the team members to voluntarily disclose such funding, including grants and donations, in an effort to boost transparency.

Akira Yamaguchi, a professor at Osaka University, received 10 million yen ($125,000) in such money, including 3 million yen from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which makes nuclear plants.

Before, nuclear regulators were in the same ministry that promotes the industry. The Nuclear Regulation Authority was set up this year following calls for a more independent watchdog, and after large and frequent public protests against nuclear power.

The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported today that such funding indicates a “danger the measures may turn spineless to reflect the utilities’ wishes.”

The chief of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Shunichi Tanaka, also has been under fire as possibly being too pro-nuclear. He was a key member of a government panel promoting nuclear energy and headed government research on the technology before being tapped for the job.

Separately, another team of experts working under the commission has been examining earthquake faults at Ohi nuclear power plant, which houses the only two reactors currently running in Japan.

A decision is expected Sunday on whether Ohi will be shut down.

Japan’s 48 other working nuclear reactors, besides the four ruined at Fukushima Dai-ichi, have not been restarted after being shut down for routine inspections.

The two at Ohi went back on line in July. Before the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power had provided about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity.

Ruling party legislator Goshi Hosono, the former minister overseeing the disaster, said today that more tests may be needed to check the earthquake faults, but even “a gray zone” of uncertainty would likely mean the Ohi reactors would go offline.

Japan is promising to develop renewable energy such as solar and wind power, but such a shift would take time. The cost of oil and gas imports has hurt the world’s third largest economy as it recovers from last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

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