After Fukushima, nuclear governance talks intensify at IAEA

July 4, 2011
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In late June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held five days of closed door ministerial meetings in Vienna to discuss lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown that caused global concern in March 2011. The 151 nations that belong to the IAEA can now look forward to an action plan that IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano will present in September. This week we talk to CIGI Senior Fellow Trevor Findlay, who is also director of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC) at Carleton University, about what these meetings may have accomplished and what the action plan might look like.

CIGI: Will the recent ministerial declaration (and the meeting’s content, including the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi crisis) really do anything for nuclear safety? What do they mean for countries that either already have nuclear reactors or are pursuing nuclear energy?

Trevor Findlay: Both the ministerial declaration and the report on Fukushima Daiichi have generated a new political impetus that will have an effect on nuclear energy–producing countries and those that are considering getting into the nuclear energy business.

The IAEA will be able to do a number of things itself without necessarily getting approval from its member states. It’s done this in the past with regard to nuclear safeguards and it will do this again when responding to crises. In fact, the agency has already started work by asking its Nuclear Standards Commission to review current voluntary safety standards. This is a good step forward.

When considering the impact of this meeting on countries that have or are pursuing nuclear energy, the Fukushima Daiichi crisis has already resulted in Germany, Italy and Switzerland deciding to foreswear nuclear.

CIGI is currently monitoring aspiring nuclear energy countries with its Survey of Emerging Nuclear Energy States (SENES), which shows that fewer and fewer countries are pursuing this option. Paradoxically, for those that are still pursuing it — like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Vietnam and Jordan — there will be greater pressure to ensure that their reactors are safe and that a proper nuclear culture, including emergency preparation, is developed. Consequently, this may cause delays due to increased costs.

CIGI: The IAEA’s director general, Mr. Yukiya Amano, has been asked to draft an action plan on nuclear safety that will be presented in September to the IAEA’s board of governors and member states. What do you think this might, and should, look like?

Findlay: There were several proposals coming out of the ministerial meeting that go beyond what the agency can do on its own.

One of the slightly controversial proposals would allow the IAEA to conduct random peer reviews of nuclear reactors. While the proposal is rather modest given that it would be voluntary and only cover one in 10 of the world’s reactors every three years, it’s controversial because of the resource requirements and member states’ reluctance to provide more funding to the agency. Moreover, it’s not clear at the moment what support there would be for mandatory reviews. While the United Kingdom and the United States are lukewarm to reviews, Russia is, ironically, given its past opposition, no longer a roadblock and is pressing for them. Presumably, countries such as Germany, Italy and Switzerland would also be supportive, but all this remains to be seen.

In my view, the action plan should include mandatory peer reviews of every nuclear reactor, and this could be done not necessarily through amending the Convention on Nuclear Safety but by integrating the IAEA’s voluntary peer reviews and the peer reviews conducted by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), a private group whose membership consists of every nuclear operator in the world. It was surprising to see that Mr. Amano didn’t even mention WANO in his proposal, which illustrates how detached the agency is from industry. WANO is organized on a regional basis, so some peer reviews are better than others; North America’s reviews, for example, will be more thorough than those in Asia. Moreover, the WANO system is secretive and has not always been effective in promoting lessons learned. But integrating the industry and agency peer reviews to rectify these flaws would be ideal.

While it’s true that the nuclear reactor operator has the first responsibility for safety, and it’s the state that has regulatory oversight, nuclear safety is clearly a global governance issue. We’re moving beyond the point where states can simply call this a sovereignty issue given that radioactivity from nuclear accidents tends to cross borders and become an international issue.   

Emergency preparedness is the second issue that should be addressed in any action plan. Though some states might think that having a greater coordinating role in nuclear accidents is too intrusive, the agency could have pre-positioned diesel backup pumping systems, or other types of stored equipment, perhaps coordinated on a regional basis, for future nuclear crises.

An important discussion that occurred during the ministerial meeting was on the agency being able to independently assess nuclear accidents. At Fukushima, one got the impression that the IAEA was simply taking information from the Japanese government and then retailing it, which is really not what you expect from an international organization. The IAEA will presumably now prepare to do its own independent assessments in the future rather than being passive observers and purveyors of information provided by states — which may inaccurately characterize situations. A neutral determination by the IAEA would avoid illogical rankings, such as elevating the crisis in Japan to the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl accident, even though the two are not really comparable.

The proposed action plan should also consider the idea of establishing a global body of nuclear regulators that would meet to exchange information and experience.  Although the Convention on Nuclear Safety prescribes that each country should have an independent regulator, free as far as possible from the undue influence of politics and the nuclear industry, there is a need to define more clearly how this should be achieved.  The idea would be to avoid conflicts of interest, such as in Japan where the regulatory body was under the authority of the government’s ministry of nuclear energy promotion and was subject to "regulatory capture" by the industry.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.