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Strengthen nuclear safety

Updated: 2012-03-27 14:34

By Pierre Gadonneix (China Daily)

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As world leaders meet for the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit it is encouraging to note that not only is the issue of nuclear security being discussed, but also its interface with nuclear safety, following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan. A year ago, just after the dreadful events of the Great North East Japan Earthquake, I called for improved global governance for the nuclear industry. It was clear that in the aftermath of such an event there should not be a competitive advantage where levels of safety were concerned.

Correctly at the time, there was a pause and a revaluation by governments of the role of nuclear energy in the struggle to meet energy demand and at the same time fight against climate change and energy poverty. National nuclear safety authorities organised stress tests on their nuclear facilities to assess their robustness in case of improbable accident and these national authorities will report the results to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Meanwhile in Japan, the government has taken steps to rebuild a trustworthy safety system and organization, working closely with the Agency. The World Association of Nuclear Operators, which unites company and country with an operating commercial nuclear power plant, has also decided to strengthen its own governance and to increase its control system through peer-reviews. Operators, such as Electricit de France, have committed to increasing investments in order to add more robustness to their currently operating reactors and take measures to build more capacity to react in case of an accident. Indeed, all actors, at all levels, have made steps to further increase safety.

It is clear however that following this initial period of reflection most countries, with the exception of Germany, Italy and Switzerland, will continue with their nuclear programmes. Japan's policymakers continue to assess the best way forward in terms of its energy mix, although the public, for understandable reasons, are very concerned about the use of nuclear power. But a review of the policy responses from other countries demonstrates that options can be limited, owing to the differing CO2 emissions, investment and operational costs of the available generating sources.

One year after Fukushima there are almost 50 countries that are operating, building, or considering nuclear generation as a viable solution for electricity generation. These countries believe safe nuclear power generation is possible. Half of them are newcomers, aiming to develop nuclear power production in order to cope better with the challenges of affordable, CO2-free energy production. More than 60 nuclear power plants are now under construction, in China, India, Russia, South Korea, France, Finland, and the United Arab Emirates. It is therefore the fact that many, mainly non-Organization for Economic Cooperation, countries have re-affirmed their intention to pursue nuclear programmes and strengthen the position of nuclear energy in their energy mix in order to meet rising power demand. China is leading the way with plans to expand its current nuclear capacity from 12 gigawatts to 40 gW, an increase that will only go a small way to meeting the country's fast-growing energy needs.

It is therefore all the more important that as countries move forward with their plans for nuclear energy, nuclear safety is strengthened. Enhanced governance procedures must keep pace with these developments, building on the existing framework already in place and accepted. Reinforcing international coordination on nuclear safety is an ambitious goal, considering all the hard work that has already been done and the need to respect legitimate concerns as regards national sovereignty. There is however reason to believe this is achievable. We will need to build on current initiatives and the existing institutions and structures. These groups including the International Atomic Energy Agency, with the involvement of the operator bodies like the World Association of Nuclear Operators, regulators such as the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association, which is a network of chief regulators of EU countries with nuclear power plants and Switzerland, the International Nuclear Regulators' Association, and the international group of experts at the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group, could provide the framework.

A strong political statement, expressed by a representative political forum such as the Nuclear Security Summit, legitimates this move towards more coordination and cooperation in the current system, thus confirming all agreed efforts to deliver a further improved form of international governance.

Such a measure should result in rebuilding and regaining public trust in nuclear power, which is crucial for its acceptance. There should also be an increased capacity for states to participate in international governance. An international accord is hard to achieve on any topic, and international governance in nuclear power is being challenged. Nevertheless, the safety of global nuclear power is one of the rare issues on which an international accord could be achieved with a reasonable level of efforts - the need to act is urgent, and the time is right.

The author is the chairman of the World Energy Council, an impartial network of leaders and practitioners, in over 90 countries, promoting an affordable, stable and environmentally sensitive energy system.