At Monday’s opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ministerial meeting in Vienna on what to do about nuclear safety after Fukushima, Director-General Yukiya Amano laid out a sensible five-point plan for improving global nuclear safety.
But Amano missed a crucial point: Disasters like Fukushima can be caused not only be accident but by terrorist action. The nuclear industry in many countries is much less prepared to cope with security incidents than with accidents, making the need to take steps to strengthen global nuclear security – protecting against both sabotage of nuclear facilities and theft of nuclear weapons or the materials to make them – particularly urgent.
He sensibly approves of the current menu of IAEA-suggested nuclear safety improvements:
Higher safety standards. Amano called for better preparedness for multiple disasters happening together (such as an earthquake and a tsunami), strengthened measures to cope with prolonged blackouts, more effort to assure water will be available to cool reactors in an emergency, special protection for sites with multiple reactors, and increased preparedness to cool spent fuel when normal cooling is lost.
More peer review. Heinonen and I had urged that all states operating major nuclear facilities ask for an independent and international team to review their safety and security measures. Amano had an interesting twist on the idea, arguing that it was impractical for the IAEA to review all 440 operating reactors anytime soon, and proposing instead that all countries agree to accept IAEA peer reviews, and the IAEA would then randomly select reactors to review, covering perhaps 10 percent of the world total in the first three years.
Stronger regulation. Amano called for all states to make sure their regulatory bodies were genuinely independent (a definite problem in Japan’s case) and had the resources and expertise to do their jobs.
Beefed-up emergency response. Amano urged states to establish stronger emergency response capabilities, including, for example, mobile diesel generators that could be brought to a stricken site. In the case of Fukushima, the IAEA had little to offer Japan to enhance its ability to respond to the crisis; Amano suggested that the IAEA put together an international register of who has special expertise available in areas such as robotics or fire-fighting in a nuclear environment.
Better emergency information. The IAEA was widely criticized during the Fukushima crisis for simply passing on Japanese information with little or no real effort to answer key questions such as: “What could happen next? What should we be prepared for?” Implicitly acknowledging this critique, Amano argued that the IAEA’s role in a crisis “should be expanded to providing analysis and possible scenarios on how a crisis might develop.
The bar of nuclear safety and security is not high enough, even if you consider the cited suggestions. Professor Bunn doubles down:
Strengthened nuclear security measures. Terrorist attacks could also cause many of the disasters Amano described. Both al Qaeda and Chechen terrorist groups have repeatedly considered sabotaging nuclear reactors – and Fukushima provided a compelling example of the scale of terror such an attack might cause. Indeed, given the multiple layers of safety systems in place for nuclear facilities today – and the extraordinarily weak security measures in place in some countries – the chance that the next big radioactive release will happen because someone wanted to make it happen may well be bigger than the chance that it will happen purely by accident.
Better safety and security culture. An organizational culture that gives safety and security top priority, and that structures incentives to encourage staff to find and fix potential risks rather than ignoring them or covering them up, is crucial to high performance.
Special attention for older reactors, rapidly growing programs, and new entrants. Aging reactors that do not have all the most modern safety systems should either be shut down or upgraded to the point that they can make a case that they do not pose significantly higher risks of a major radioactive release than newer reactors do… Nuclear programs that are expanding at a furious rate, such as those in China, India, and Russia, also need special attention to ensure that no corners are cut in the rush to build, and that nuclear regulators and other safety infrastructure can expand to cope with a much larger nuclear enterprise.
Tools beyond the IAEA. The reality is that the global effort to ensure that nuclear power is safe and secure extends far beyond the IAEA. The actual operators of nuclear facilities bear the largest responsibilities, but, vendors, builders, and suppliers all have major roles to play. Effective national regulators are crucial. Responders from off the site, whether firemen or armed forces to help cope with an attack, are also key.
Reporting and learning. Reporting on incidents, analyzing their root causes, and sharing that information so that everyone can learn how to prevent similar problems in the future is crucial to nuclear safety.
More specific binding standards. The effects of nuclear accidents or nuclear terrorism know no boundaries. Yet currently, decisions about what safety and security measures to take are left in the hands of each individual country operating a nuclear facility. Existing safety and security conventions establish only broad principles, with no specific standards states are obligated to meet.
Not much to argue with in these suggestions. The one point I would make is that Bunn, like the vast majority of analysts, stops considering the issue around the end of the “response” phase. There is little to no discussion about the vast array of recovery issues involved in any radiological event.
These include not only decontamination, but the psychological, economic, and social healing that will need to take place over decades of interaction between the public, government, and nuclear industry in Japan.
You can read Bunn’s entire piece here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/power/2011/06/21/mostly-getting-nuclear-safety-at-the-iaea-%E2%80%93-but-missing-nuclear-security/