Urgent Need for New Thinking on Regulating Nuclear Energy

By Adele Buckley | 2007-07-01 12:00:00

Every informed person must be anxious about nuclear power. It increases the threat of proliferation; it generates dangerous long-lived waste; the safety of its plants is uncertain; and it creates the potential for nuclear terrorism. Nevertheless, nuclear power is undergoing a renaissance, rather than going away, so we need ways of reducing all these risks.

Since 1957, the world has depended on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to prevent misuse of nuclear energy. Based in Vienna, the IAEA is an intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, headed today by Mohammed ElBaradei. As an agency of the United Nations, it reports to the General Assembly and the Security Council. Its regulatory regime is voluntary, relying on the expertise and reliability of national regulators.

Every nuclear reactor has a global presence, but there is no binding agreement requiring international oversight of all nuclear reactors. The IAEA "Additional Protocol for Application of Safeguards" is directed solely at verifying that there are no activities leading to nuclear proliferation.

About 16 percent of the world's electricity supply comes from 442 nuclear reactors in 32 countries. Many of these are at least 15 years old and will soon require a massive refurbishment program. Nuclear electricity plants are extremely expensive, and the complete cost, including waste storage in perpetuity, is rarely fully accounted. Safety overall has been adequate, but there have been near and actual accidents (specifically at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) that have made the public mistrust the technology. And for good reason: Radiation releases from operating plants are circulating around the globe. Many nuclear reactors are aging, making rigorous oversight vital, but change in existing procedures is slow or non-existent.

Nuclear power plants produce fissile material that, if illegitimately transferred to terrorists or states, could produce nuclear weapons. Long lived radioactive waste has accumulated, and is stored mainly on-site, where it could be catastrophic if released into the environment by, say, a terrorist nuclear bombing at a power plant.

Nuclear energy renaissance

The IAEA estimates that, over the next 20 years, world nuclear energy capacity will increase between 22 and 43 percent. India, for example, intends to supply its energy needs with a mix of technologies, notably including nuclear. In July 2005, India and United States signed a nuclear deal that would have India open most of its nuclear facilities for inspections and could buy nuclear power plants and fuel from the United States and other suppliers. In May 2006, President Bush proposed that the US build more nuclear power plants to meet its energy needs without increasing global warming. Many, of course, see this as a flawed view. At a G8 meeting in 2006, Bush and Putin pledged to use nuclear energy in the US and Russia. A new 1600 megawatt reactor is being built in Finland, the first in many years. China has recently made a deal with Australia for supplies of fuel for its planned nuclear reactors.

Like it or not, the reality is that the nuclear energy renaissance is underway, without new thinking to plan for plant safety or physical protection against terrorism or guarantee that safeguards are sufficient. A major international meeting, with 57 countries represented, occurred in Moscow in February, 2006 on "Effective Nuclear Regulatory Systems." There the Chinese announced plans to build "two or three 1000 MW(3) units every year."

Existing international agreements do not suffice. The regulators know what is required, but they must "walk the walk," not just "talk the talk." The next such conference will be in three years. This pace is much too slow.

To consider the future use of nuclear energy, there are two optional paths - mitigation or adaptation (borrowing a terminology from climate change issues). In the "mitigation" approach, we would oppose nuclear power and undertake a program of shutdown, decommissioning and cleanup for existing plants worldwide -- but the political will is absent. An alternative approach is "adaptation" -- which requires that we address factors besides non-proliferation, and provide for physical plant safety, waste transport and waste storage, political/legal issues, and prevention of terrorism.

For the good of all, every nuclear power plant, worldwide, should guarantee:

Dr. ElBaradei has said that "civil society and public at large are increasingly recognized as important stakeholders in the work of the regulatory body." We who wish to foster peace and security should urge governments to begin negotiating a new agreement on nuclear energy regulations before the world faces a full-blown nuclear renaissance.

Multilateral Nuclear Approaches

A number of states are preparing to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle facilities. Hence the IAEA appointed an expert group to consider Multilateral Nuclear Approaches (MNAs). They considered two dominant factors:

While MNAs reduce risk of proliferation by requiring the presence of a multinational team, they must meet the challenge of assurances of supply and services at commercially competitive rates, mechanisms for backup supplies, and be free of monopolies and political constraints. Unfortunately, the IAEA's existing "Additional Protocol for Application of Safeguards" is not a suitable instrument for implementing MNAs because it is directed solely at verifying that there are no activities leading to nuclear proliferation, and it involves only the NNWS (Non Nuclear Weapons States)

A driving force for the MNA is Iran's insistence on proceeding with its rights under the NPT to develop nuclear energy, while failing to assure the IAEA that there are no undeclared nuclear activities in Iran. Perhaps a new nuclear energy agreement, with even-handed inclusion of all states, could help ease the tension between Iran and the international community.

India has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus is outside the IAEA safeguards inspection. The US and India are making serious progress in negotiations to allow the US to ship nuclear fuel to India for civilian purposes. It is conceivable that this new supply of nuclear fuel would free existing stocks in India for their nuclear weapons program. This development points again to the necessity of new international agreement, covering every country that has a nuclear reactor.

IAEA's Potential Role as a Verifying Agency at Nuclear Power Plants

The IAEA's mandate says that all states that are members of the United Nations can be members of the Agency, providing that they fulfill their obligations. This is a useful foundation for building an international regulatory system. Where nuclear energy is concerned, the IAEA's role is provider of expert guidance, developer of safety and security standards, sponsor of international conventions, and supporter of new science and technology. It is the international inspection agency whose inspectors verify that safeguarded nuclear material and activities are not used for weapons purposes. From time to time it reports non-compliance to the Security Council. However, IAEA has no comparable operational role where nuclear safety is concerned, nor physical protection against terrorism. Therein lies the weakness of the international system.

It is common in industrial settings for individual plants to conform to ISO (International Standards Organization) standards for quality or environmental management. Holding such certification gives a corporate owner a competitive edge. It is a working practice globally for regulatory agencies to inspect facilities regularly, and to require conformance. For inspection of nuclear power plants IAEA could be the lead agency. It will need the absolute confidence of all members of the international community. For this, the inspection team must be a third party -- not the owners, the managers, the subcontractors, or the government where any nuclear power plant is located. Especially, the inspection team should have no link to the government of the country, for the government is the regulator, and often also the owner. It would be in a conflict of interest as the inspecting agency. This demand is not required for other types of electricity generators (e.g. coal-fired plants) but it is vital to the international credibility of the system proposed here.

A periodic inspection of every plant and every nuclear reactor is a massive task, and could not be carried out by the IAEA staff alone with its own resources. Therefore, the IAEA would be obliged to train and authorize others to carry out its protocols of inspection. Implementing such an inspection system would require expansion of IAEA.

Meeting the Costs

Power utilities today operate under national regulatory systems. Compliance with regulations and frequent interaction with the regulatory agency are part of the cost of doing business. Where nuclear power is concerned, the regulatory system must include every nation, binding all to the same regime. A viable means of meeting the costs would be a "user-pay" system, where the user is the individual nuclear power plant. In essence, the cost per kwH of electricity would include the cost of inspection. The countries that generate the most nuclear power would pay the largest costs of the inspection system. Thus if North America and Europe chose not to build new nuclear power, they would not be paying for the regulatory compliance cost of Asia's electricity production. The key point is that the inspection system must be self-funding, and without subsidy. All nations, powerful or weak, must acknowledge that a universal regulatory regime is in their self-interest and that it affects all citizens of the world.

It would be a particularly big jump for nuclear weapons states (NWS) to accept routine third party inspection of power plants because they are not subject to any international inspection at present, whereas the Non-Nuclear Weapons States that have ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty are already obliged to agree to international inspection. Non-signatories to the NPT do not receive inspections. With gradual introduction over a period of a few years, there could be universal inspections under national regulations (identical in scope for all countries, adapted to the specific technology at hand) and carried out by national and third party international inspectors .

Nuclear Waste Issues

The waste product of nuclear energy production is highly radioactive and long-lived. Strategies for disposal have created many years of controversy. Nevertheless, the technical community has accepted the viability of secure centralized storage in a deep geological repository. No country has yet implemented such storage, but the country closest to achieving underground disposal is Finland. As described in the Scientific American, Finland is moving ahead with a project for underground disposal at Oikiluoto. The long awaited storage facility in Yucca Mountain in the United States may never be approved as a result of unforeseen water problems.

Although there is a low probability of failure of a geological repository, society fears storage of nuclear waste in a way that may be disproportionate to the actual risk; might this be a transferral of fear of nuclear weapons? There are many environmental dangers in our industrial society that have consequences for future generations. Not the least of these hazards is mercury emission from coal-fired electricity. As mercury is a potent neurotoxin affecting women and young children, it is an immediate and also a future risk. An accident, or a terrorist attack, at a chemical manufacturing plant could spread toxic material that would last for generations.

At present, most nuclear waste is stored near to the site of its origin, which is, in many cases, near to large population centres. As long as the nuclear reactors themselves have a rugged fail-safe system, they are said to be well protected from a 9/11 type of terrorism, or from attacks on their central electrical control systems. However, there is an unacceptable exposure to potential terrorism through the presence of the waste. Potentially, a terrorist attack could spread radioactive waste over a large geographical area, thus endangering the lives of millions. There seems to be little public awareness of this dangerous situation. Governments must be forced to move in a timely manner, but it is unclear how to do so, except by citizen protests. Also, it is not clear whether or not IAEA considers nuclear waste disposal a priority.

Fuel Processing

Agreement to implement a nuclear fuel cycle supply system was confirmed at the G8 Summit in July 2006. This scheme would create a central enrichment facility to supply client countries with fuel for nuclear power plants. Russia has proposed that it would produce fuel and collect spent fuel for Iran's civilian nuclear program.

A plant providing nuclear fuel cycle supply would be a potential site for clandestine access to nuclear materials, and would require inspection by IAEA under the Additional Protocol. Further, there need to be national and international regulations governing its safe and secure operation. For conformance to these regulations, inspection would also be required.

Iran has not complied with the Security Council's deadline for relinquishing its enrichment program. However, it has indicated that it is open to negotiating and could be willing to adhere to the Additional Protocol. Iran does not want an agreement that diminishes its national sovereignty or its technological capability. It wants defence of its rights under the NPT and assurance against attack. The United States, Europe and IAEA want no nuclear weapons development and full Iranian cooperation with verification, including resolution of questions about past nuclear activity. A step forward may be possible. However, it is on record that the US has so far rejected all overtures from Iran to discuss these issues.

Alternative Technologies

As use of alternative, renewable sources of energy increases, the technologies will improve, and the cost to implement will go down. All governments should be encouraged to adopt them, so that use of nuclear energy is minimized. A strict, enforced nuclear energy regulatory system could drive nations toward non-nuclear energy technologies, and thus reduce the growth of nuclear energy.

The known and projected supply of uranium ore will last only 60 years, unless more efficient new-technology reactors are used. However, ominously for proliferation avoidance, reprocessed plutonium can be used. If reprocessing could be under a regulatory regime, safety and security would be greatly enhanced. Fast nuclear reactor designs extract thirty times more energy from uranium, with less waste and less radiotoxicity. Some parts of the technical community like the thorium fuel cycle, which is stated by IAEA to have intrinsic proliferation resistance.

Every nuclear reactor has a dangerous global presence. Since nations will not choose to avoid nuclear energy, then it is in the self-interest of every nation that a universal inspection and verification system be adopted by all. This goal, while difficult, is feasible over the long term. However, this expensive regime is beyond the resources that would be available to the IAEA, unless a full "user-pay" system becomes a normal part of the business of nuclear energy generation.

Dr. Adele Buckley is chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group. Adele-buckley@rogers.com. She was formerly Vice President Technology and Research, Ontario Centre for Environmental Technology Advancement. She thanks Dr. Trevor Findlay and Dr. Tatsujiro Suzuki for their useful input.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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