Prospects low for international nuclear safety standards

Posted on 15 October 2013

More than two years after the Fukushima reactor accidents, the World Energy Congress on 15 October was told that the establishment of legally binding international regulations on nuclear safety remains an elusive goal.

Most experts pinned their hopes on enforcement of regulations by individual governments and greater international collaboration within the nuclear industry.

“More needs to be done,” said Hasan Murat Mercan, Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, “nuclear energy is not like coal or oil because it has a global impact.” Mercan, however, took issue with a proposal made at the WEC that the nuclear industry implements international safety standards similar to worldwide air safety regulations. “An international airline safety organization can ground an aircraft after an accident, but it cannot halt a nuclear operator.”

Yukiya Amano, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), drew attention to the importance of governments in nuclear safety. “The IAEA’s role is to make sure that each country that uses nuclear energy becomes a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That means that they agree to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To implement safeguards we rely on each state.”

Jacques Regaldo, Chairman of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) stated that there are only 31 countries that generate electricity using nuclear energy, “so we are considerably less international than the airline industry.” Regaldo added that when utilities around the world were asked to engage in safety checks after the Fukushima accident, each state carried out the inspections according to its own rules. “Everyone used different criteria,” said Regaldo.

Agneta Rising, Director General of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), said “We can agree internationally on the certification of new designs, however, we do not need more standards or regulations … We can benefit from each other’s best practices.”

In spite of the absence of international standards on governance on nuclear issues, the IAEA’s Amano stated that nuclear energy was here to stay: “There will be a future for nuclear energy. Access should be given to developing countries. As for legally binding international standards, I do not pour my efforts into that because it is elusive. Rather, we should implement action plans that we agree on.”

Rising also said that poor communication on nuclear safety poses a bigger challenge in the fight against climate change than radiation. “Too often nuclear accidents are treated disproportionately to their actual impact,” said Rising. Referring to the Fukushima nuclear accident, Rising said, “An accident that is seen as having such global significance has resulted in no nuclear-related fatalities or injuries.” Rising described nuclear energy as “affordable, reliable, and clean.” The industry is growing, but “it needs to grow faster if the world is to meet future energy demand and avert climate change.”

Although Fukushima has triggered a phasing out of nuclear power in Germany and a reassessment of plans to expand nuclear generation in other countries, construction of additional capacity is continuing in developing countries such as China and India. According to a WNA report, by 2030 global nuclear capacity will grow from 371 GW to 574 GW. But Rising said that if the industry is to grow, “we must put public fear of radiation in perspective, only then can we meet the world’s need for affordable, reliable, and clean energy.” Rising was critical of the practice of nuclear power operators to disclose large volumes of raw data without explanation: “It is not sufficient to simply release every scrap of data, without explaining clearly the context.” TEPCO, operator of the crippled Fukushima reactors was criticized for releasing large volumes of radiation data, triggering public concern about safety immediately after the accident.

 

This news story is based on the session What Does It Take?, “Effective international governance on nuclear” at 2013 World Energy Congress.