Japanese legislators approved a reshuffle at the nuclear safety regulator including appointing a commissioner who has received nearly $100,000 from nuclear-related entities over the past decade to fund his academic research.
Among the two commissioners stepping down from the five-member panel at the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), one is a fierce critic of safety practices in the industry.
Opponents said the changes, which were approved on Tuesday, undermined Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's commitment to an independent watchdog at a time when utilities are pushing to restart their idled reactors.
The NRA's independence is under scrutiny as it reviews applications to restart reactors, all 48 of which were shut in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
The commission was set up as an independent agency after Fukushima to replace a regulator seen as too close to the industry and to an energy ministry that promoted atomic power. Since then, utilities have pledged more than $15 billion to upgrade equipment and facilities.
Japan's lower house of parliament, where Abe has a majority, approved his government's nomination of Satoru Tanaka, a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Tokyo and a proponent of nuclear power.
It also approved geologist Akira Ishiwatari, whose candidacy generated little controversy. The upper house is expected to also give them the greenlight.
Industry analysts said any nuclear energy expert in Japan would have received funding from the industry given the decades of close ties between utilities and Japanese academia.
"But it is a matter of the degree of money you receive," said Hideyuki Ban of Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, a non-profit anti-nuclear group.
Tanaka did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment on the donations, which were detailed in financial disclosures and Japanese media. Tokyo University would not provide contact information for him, citing privacy concerns.
"Bringing someone like (Tanaka) on as a regulator changes the fundamental role of the NRA," said Tomoko Abe, an independent anti-nuclear lawmaker not related to the prime minister.