Nuclear safety is the world's problem

The Ottawa Citizen

March 28, 2011

The multiple reactor crises at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant reinforce the need for strengthening global instruments to ensure nuclear safety worldwide. The fact that a country that has been operating nuclear power reactors for decades should prove so alarmingly improvisational in its response and so unwilling to reveal the facts even to its own people, much less the International Atomic Energy Agency, is a reminder that nuclear safety is a constant work-in-progress.

The disaster also adds to concerns about states rushing to join the so-called nuclear renaissance without the necessary infrastructure, personnel, regulatory frameworks and safety culture. The past decade has seen renewed enthusiasm for nuclear energy to meet burgeoning energy demands, enhance energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But some aspirant states like Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh and Venezuela have no significant industrial experience on which to build and will require at least a decade of preparation even before turning the first sod at a reactor site.

Even more directly pertinent to the Fukushima case, other newcomers, like Indonesia, Turkey and Italy, are in active seismic zones and will surely now have to revisit their plans, at least in terms of reactor siting and reinforcement. States with existing nuclear energy programs such as China, Canada, Germany and the United States have ordered safety reviews or at least temporary halts to further construction. The eventual impact of the Fukushima crisis depends on how it ultimately plays out. It certainly makes governments' energy choices in the face of global warming more excruciating than before. Crucially though, the future of nuclear energy will depend on whether the nuclear industry and governments can reassure the public about nuclear safety. This will vary from country to country. It will be harder in states where previously growing support for nuclear is most tenuous (as in some European states) and more problematic in democracies than in autocratic states like China. If the public cannot be convinced, then the "renaissance" will surely be stillborn.

One means of increasing reassurance about nuclear safety is improved international oversight. Key instruments are the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) and the standards, guidelines and advisory services of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Both need fortifying. The CNS, although legallybinding on its states parties, is broad-brush in its requirements (along the lines of "thou shalt ensure nuclear safety"; "thou shalt appoint a nuclear regulator" and "thou shalt put in place emergency procedures"), while the specific safety requirements issued by the IAEA pursuant to the convention are entirely voluntary. The IAEA has no power, for instance, to induce Armenia to close what is reputed to be the least safe nuclear reactor in the world.

The convention's peer review system, meanwhile, is effective up to a point, as is that of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO). But the two bodies do not share information and the learning of lessons from operational experience and incidents has been patchy. National regulators do not convene systematically and industry is fractured and subject to cutthroat commercial rivalries. The nuclear accident liability conventions are incomprehensible and underfunded. The IAEA, meanwhile, is not being provided with the necessary management tools, expert personnel, technologies and funding to fulfil its role.

For instance, although the agency has been involved in considering the seismic safety of nuclear reactors since the 1970s, and despite previous seismic damage to Japanese reactors, only in 2008 did its member states establish an International Seismic Safety Centre (ISSC) to provide integrated advice on the seismic hazards of existing and potential reactor sites. Only recently has a scientific committee been established to reinforce these efforts. As is often the case with the IAEA, key technical studies are conducted outside the IAEA's regular budget, relying on voluntary contributions. While the Obama administration is keen to provide substantial new funding to the agency, Canada has regrettably been leading the charge in the opposite direction.

As in other areas of global governance, states jealously guard their right to determine how nuclear safety is regulated on their territory.

What is more surprising is the standoffish attitude of many in the nuclear industry to the IAEA, especially given that the agency's mandate is to promote nuclear energy. Fukushima reminds us of a major lesson from Chernobyl: that nuclear security is inevitably an international concern due to the proclivity of radioactivity to cross international borders. In order to strengthen the IAEA's role, states should in future be required to match or exceed the Agency's nuclear safety recommendations or explain how they intend to ensure safety otherwise.

Moreover, as recommended in our report on the Future of Nuclear Energy to 2030 (see, transparency and collaboration should be engendered by establishing a global nuclear safety network encompassing all stakeholders -relevant international organizations, governments, civil society and, most vitally, the nuclear industry.

In response to past crises, notably Iraq's near acquisition of nuclear weapons, the Chernobyl accident and the 9-11 attacks, the international community has moved swiftly to strengthen global governance of nuclear non-proliferation, safety and security respectively. It needs to take advantage of the window of opportunity provided by alarm over the Fukushima tragedy to do so again.

Louise Fréchette is former Deputy secretary general of the United Nations and chair of the Nuclear Energy Futures Project at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIG) in Waterloo, Ontario; Trevor Findlay, director of the project, is currently heading a new CIGI project on the future of the IAEA; he is a professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and director of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance at Carleton University.

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.

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