By Joon Yong Choi and Adam Koniuszewski
This March, the world observed the 5th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. That catastrophe showed, in no uncertain terms, that nuclear power plants – and, in fact, other nuclear facilities and materials – remain vulnerable and susceptible to dangerous interferences of both natural and man-made origins. The consequences of Fukushima (like those of Chernobyl 30 years ago) have made a serious impact on global attitudes toward nuclear power.
But has attention been focused on the right issues, and have the right lessons been learned?
“The legacy of Fukushima Daiichi will be a sharper focus on nuclear safety everywhere,” said Yukiya Amano, Director General of the IAEA, in his address to the Agency’s Board of Governors on 7 March 2016. “There is widespread recognition that everything humanly possible must be done to ensure that such an accident never happens again. This is all the more essential as global use of nuclear power is likely to continue to grow in the coming decades.”
Let’s face it: Fukushima was (and still is) much more than an “accident”, as Mr. Amano politely defined it. And it should have been possible to prevent this disaster through a more thorough and comprehensive analysis of risks, and, even more importantly, through vigorous planning and implementation of preventive safety measures. Being on the coast of a seismically active area, the facility and its supporting infrastructure were more prone to earthquakes and tsunami flooding – which could well come together; therefore different combination and location of protective systems should have been considered.
Over the last five years progress in the area of nuclear safety and security has been and continues to be made, but there should be no room for complacency. Fukushima has not just revealed certain technical flaws at one given facility – it emphasized several systemic problems within the industry. It is not a secret that problems of much lesser magnitude are occurring from time to time at one or another nuclear facility. A bit of radioactive leakage here, a bit there – with little attention from mass media and from national oversight authorities – are also indicative of systemic problems. Hence the importance of constant re-evaluation across the industry, which should address effectiveness and resilience of not just individual safety features, but the whole safety system in its entirety, including the capacity of the system to produce timely and accurate information about any and all non-standard situations – instead of painting rosy pictures.
This lesson gains further importance globally, if we recognize that, due to climate change, certain types of natural disasters are increasing in severity and are now “expanding” beyond their “traditional” areas of occurrence. Nuclear safety requires ongoing attention and a wide-ranging approach that considers multiple factors, including geography, consequences of climate change (rising sea levels, for example), political stability, potential for military conflicts, and many more.
Furthermore, there is the issue of governance. When national governments set the standards for industries in which they themselves have major stakes, there is a higher risk of rigging requirements or covering up shortcomings. In an industry where there should be no room for error, this is not acceptable.
The nuclear industry itself has long been sensitive about open and transparent discussions of safety concerns, as they tend to fear questions that might negatively affect the industry’s image -and profits. This is also partly why a number of important countries are hesitant to view nuclear safety as an international issue and insist on considering it a national prerogative. The high costs of nuclear power – both enormous start-up investments and potentially ruinous liability concerns – tend to scare away private investment, so national governments are generally the main investors in their countries’ nuclear industries. They have a vested interest in controlling the standards and regulations they are required to meet.
This attitude towards nuclear safety contrasts with nations’ much greater willingness to view nuclear security (such as preventing access by non-state actors to nuclear installations and materials, controlling acquisition of nuclear materials and technologies and reducing the global availability of materials for making nuclear bombs) as part of a broader international framework.
The reality is that there is a considerable overlap between nuclear safety and nuclear security, and many (though not all) of the requirements for protecting nuclear facilities against terrorist attacks are essentially the same as for protecting facilities against natural disasters and human errors. Fukushima, for instance, showed that a radiological disaster could be caused by cutting the power supply to cooling systems, even if no direct damage is initially done to the well-protected reactor itself. In this case the culprits were the earthquake and tsunami, but the same effect could also be achieved by terrorists, by a disgruntled and psychologically unstable operator or by a cyber-attack from the opposite side of the globe.
It is obvious that the threat of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities is very serious and is probably growing, as exemplified by very recent and credible reports about ISIS-connected terrorists in Belgium conducting reconnaissance of that country’s nuclear power plants and spying on their personnel. Earlier reports of suspicious drone activities around some nuclear power stations in France are similarly alarming. And given ISIS strategy of proving to European nations that it has both the will and the means to wreak havoc and fear in Europe, the issue of preventing nuclear terrorism must be very high on the priority list of the international community.
But one of the clear political lessons from the Fukushima experience is that nuclear security and safety must be considered as international issues. The world continues to become more globalized, and it is vital that countries remain unified in their management of nuclear risks and responses to nuclear incidents, no matter how small or big they may be (the latter have no respect for borders in any case). In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has one structural unit dealing with both problems. The international community at large, however, tends to look at them separately.
The last scheduled nuclear security summit in Washington (31 March-1 April 2016) is a case in point. This series of summits, initiated by US President Barack Obama in 2009, has already produced a powerful impetus for efforts to deal with nuclear security. The latest edition is expected to propose a follow-up process in the form of action-plans for various organizations and tracks. There are all the reasons to include nuclear safety as part of that follow-up, but at the time of the writing it was not clear whether the outcomes of the NSS reflect this idea.
The Fukushima disaster caused many countries to revisit their plans for future use of nuclear energy – but not necessarily all in the same way. Germany has permanently shut down a number of its reactors and is aiming to close all remaining facilities by 2022. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new plants and decided to aim at phasing out the local production of nuclear energy. It is clear that Fukushima has led to a significant moderation in the reliance on nuclear energy. But, as developments show, utilization of nuclear energy cannot be easily phased out everywhere, including in those countries, which have proclaimed it as their goal. In Switzerland, for example, there are strong calls for the reconsideration of the phasing-out decision.
Addressing comprehensively the protection of nuclear facilities and materials from all kinds of threats is all the more important as more and more countries are expected to become involved in peaceful nuclear activities. A recent development has been the appearance of a new generation of reactors called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). These smaller reactors are likely to speed proliferation in nuclear energy as they provide an easier entry point for new users. SMRs are expected to enter the market as early as 2020, with help from the IAEA. And in the discussion of nuclear safety and security, this new development creates another angle to consider before then. Regardless of size, the SMRs have the same issues of nuclear safety and require the same emphasis on security.
In short, whether we like it or not, nuclear energy will be with us for quite some time, and with it the inescapable requirement to take nuclear safety and security seriously.
Joon Yong Choi is a Boston University student at and currently an intern at GCI
Adam Koniuszewski is Chef Operating Officier at GCI