TOKYO – Japan’s nuclear regulator has urged universities to conduct background checks on students and researchers working at research reactors, as a step to ensure the proper handling of nuclear materials and prevent terrorism, a source close to the matter said Thursday.
The check items include mental disorder and criminal records and those who have access to strictly controlled nuclear material storage areas at research reactors owned by universities will be subject to the new rule.
But the decision will likely raise concerns about privacy and human rights, legal experts say. University officials are concerned that the inquiries could also discourage students from becoming researchers in the nuclear industry.
The Nuclear Regulation Authority’s request comes after the International Atomic Energy Agency recommended the Japanese government conduct background checks on workers at nuclear power plants and those involved in decommissioning work at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, crippled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Based on the recommendation, the nuclear safety watchdog decided last year to conduct background checks on workers at nuclear plants. Plant operators plan to start the checks as early as this fall.
A total of 17 check items also include students’ and researchers’ names, nationalities, employment history and addiction to alcohol, the source said.
Temporary visitors, such as students from other universities, would be exempted from the checks.
The authority could impose administrative sanctions if any false report is found. But it would be difficult for universities to verify whether any false report is made, nuclear policy experts said.
“It’s clearly an excessive response given that the threat posed by nuclear materials in reactors for research purposes at universities cannot be so big,” said Hideyuki Ban, co-director of the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center.
“After the Fukushima nuclear accident, fewer students are interested in studying nuclearfields but the number could decline even further” as the background checks become a psychological barrier, Ban said.
Hiroshi Miyano, a professor at Hosei University, meanwhile, said the background checks will make students aware that nuclear materials should be strictly controlled.
“It would also lead to assurance to people living around nuclear plants or reactors used for research purposes,” Miyano said, adding that Japan had been noted for not taking sufficient steps against theft of nuclear technology and materials.
According to the education ministry, Kyoto University has two research reactors, while Kindai University has one.
Some 300 students enroll in departments of nuclear engineering annually, compared with around 1,500 students who used to work at research reactors before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.
With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government pushing for the restart of nuclear reactors and decommissioning work currently under way at some aging reactors, Japan needs experts in nuclear fields, nuclear policy experts say.