Japan to sack top officials over nuclear disaster

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The Independent Online

Japan may replace three senior bureaucrats in charge of nuclear power policy, the minister overseeing energy policy said today, five months after the world's worst atomic crisis in 25 years erupted at Fukushima.

The planned dismissals come weeks after a series of scandals revealed how government officials in charge of safeguarding the operations of the nuclear power plants had tried to influence public opinion by instructing utilities to have staff send in emails to a public forum favouring nuclear power use.

The move comes as Prime Minister Naoto Kan calls for enhanced nuclear safety accountability and an overhaul of Japan's energy policy, with the aim of gradually weaning it off its dependence on nuclear power as public safety concerns mount.

Trade Minister Banri Kaieda, who played a key role in handling the Fukushima crisis and who has said he intends to step down to take responsibility for missteps, vowed to carry out major changes in the ministry's personnel, including the three top officials.

"I'm planning to breathe fresh air into the ministry with a large-scale reshuffle," Kaieda told a news conference.

"I'll have new people rebuild the ministry."

Unpopular Kan has expressed growing distrust towards the trade ministry, which promotes nuclear power while housing the atomic safety regulator that has been criticised as being too cosy with the nuclear utility it should be policing.

Kaieda himself has said he will resign to take responsibility for confusion caused by the government's sudden announcement of reactor safety tests. He recently broke down in tears at a parliamentary hearing after being hounded by the opposition about the timing of his resignation.

But the embattled minister did not say on Thursday when he will quit. The Asahi newspaper reported that Kaieda intended to step down as soon as possible after sacking the three officials.

The three officials are the top bureaucrat at the trade ministry, the head of the nuclear safety watchdog and the chief of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy , under the trade ministry.

Public trust against nuclear safety has been shattered after the radiation leaks at Fukushima nuclear plant, triggered by a huge quake and tsunami in March, and suspicion deepened last week after a utility firm revealed the atomic regulator tried to manipulate the outcome of a debate on nuclear power in 2007.

The government will unveil as early as this week its plans for a new and more independent atomic safety regulator that could lead to tougher safety standards.

Following the Fukushima disaster, Japan has been trying to avoid power shortages that could curtail manufacturing and damage the frail economy, as only 16 out of 54 reactors are running due to public safety concerns and other problems.