There has been much talk in recent years of a major increase in nuclear energy use to meet growing power demand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although many countries have expressed an interest in going nuclear, how many have the financial backbone and technical/administrative wherewithal to take on such a challenge?
Not many, according to a new study released last week by the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Over the next 20 years, it foresees a modest increase in the number of nuclear power plants and only a handful of new countries joining the nuclear club.
A modest revival is just as well now, because the international mechanisms meant to ensure that nuclear technology remains safe and secure and does not get diverted toward nuclear weapons are not as strong as they should be.
Since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, nuclear safety has improved around the world. But a safety culture is still not universally apparent, and international sharing of lessons learned from operational experience and incidents is still inadequate. And the international regime for nuclear security is newer and much less developed than it is for safety. Many steps have been taken since 9/11 to ensure the protection of nuclear installations and materials, but key legal instruments are not widely adhered to or in force, peer review is not widely practised and excessive secrecy limits the exchange of information.
The global non-proliferation regime faces the most serious challenges of all. Continuing non-compliance by Iran and North Korea and the spectre of nuclear smuggling are cause for deep concern. Not all parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have safeguards in force, despite their legal obligation to do so, and many are still resisting the 1997 Additional Protocol, which gives broader access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
More fundamentally, the non-proliferation regime is undermined by the still unresolved central contradiction of the NPT: that some states have accorded themselves the right to retain nuclear weapons, apparently in perpetuity, while all others are legally bound never to acquire them.
This will be a pivotal year for nuclear issues. In April, U.S. President Barack Obama will play host to a special summit on nuclear security. In May, NPT signatories will gather in New York for a review conference. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper has indicated that nuclear issues will occupy a prominent place on the agenda of June's G8 summit in Huntsville, Ont.
These gatherings offer a unique opportunity to shore up nuclear global governance and make the world safer for nuclear energy. A five-point action agenda should be pursued:
1. Ensure that all states are committed to and capable of implementing the highest nuclear safety standards, notably by strengthening peer review processes and making them mandatory.
2. Ensure that all nuclear material and facilities are secure from unauthorized access or terrorist attack. International assistance should be increased to help poorer countries apply appropriate protection standards.
3. Ensure that a nuclear revival does not contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Additional Protocol should become the gold standard and the IAEA's powers to investigate suspected weapons programs should be confirmed. Efforts to establish a nuclear fuel bank should be pursued, and existing nuclear energy states should commit themselves now to eventual multilateralization of the fuel cycle as a way to dissuade additional states from acquiring sensitive technologies. (Nothing would do more to breathe new life into the non-proliferation regime, however, than resolute steps toward full nuclear disarmament.)
4. Re-enforce the IAEA's effectiveness through increased funding, modernization and reform. Its budget should be increased and its verification technology and infrastructure upgraded urgently.
5. Ensure that all partners, especially industry, participate in judiciously managing a nuclear revival. Consideration should be given to an industry code restricting nuclear sales to states in full compliance with international standards and obligations.
Canada, with its special expertise in nuclear technology and a long history of engagement in the construction of effective global governance in this area, is particularly well placed to promote such an agenda. Chairing the G8 gives us a unique opportunity to help shape the international response. We should seize it.
Louise Fréchette is distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., and chair of CIGI's Nuclear Energy Futures project.