Friday, November 08, 2013

Yuta Kawashima on "Post-Fukushima Nuclear World: Proposal for More Robust Global Nuclear Safety Regime"

Yuta Kawashima, my former student at the Pennsylvania University School of International Affairs,  conducts individual research. He previously served as an intern at the Arms Control Association (ACA), where he provided research support.

Mr. Kawashima has been researching issues related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  His essay, "Post-Fukushima Nuclear World: Proposal for More Robust Global Nuclear Safety Regime," follows.

Post-Fukushima Nuclear World: Proposal for More Robust Global Nuclear Safety Regime

Yuta Kawashima

The map shows the commercial nuclear power plants in the world (2009). Research reactors are not considered nuclear power plants. Updated information is available from World Nuclear Power Reactors & Uranium Requirements, Plans for New Nuclear Reactors, and Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries.

   Operating reactors, building new reactors
   Operating reactors, planning new build
   No reactors, building new reactors
   No reactors, new in planning
   Operating reactors, stable
   Operating reactors, decided on phase-out
   Civil nuclear power is illegal
   No reactors



The international community has become recently well aware of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament issues. Huge risks and potentially dire consequences of nuclear war have been frequently told everywhere. Although states’ desire for nuclear weapons technology has not been eliminated, international restrictions on military applications of nuclear power has got much global attention and cooperation, which contributes to downplaying political, economic and security values of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the use of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy industry, has been promoted worldwide as a sustainable and clean energy resource. However, despite its different “intent” from military application of nuclear power, the peaceful nuclear use could also have enormous risks of radiation exposure and land/water contamination in case of a serious accident. Threat of nuclear radiation would transcend national borders and can become a global-scale disaster.

As nuclear power plants are expanding worldwide, the risks of nuclear accidents increase. Awakened by the Fukushima accident, the world has been realizing the urgent need of more robust global nuclear safety regime to prevent another global nuclear disaster. To demonstrate the necessity of the global nuclear safety regime, this report covers following points: 1) the current global expansion of nuclear technology, 2) an example of potential global catastrophe by subsequent nuclear accidents in Fukushima, and 3) proliferation concerns by spreading uranium enrichment technology. Subsequently, this report proposes several suggestions for reinforcing a global nuclear safety regime for managing the present and future horrific situation surrounded by global nuclear terror.

Current World Nuclear Energy Industry

1) Global Expansion

The IAEA’s database shows that there are 435 operational reactors in 31 countries, and 69 reactors under construction in 15 countries (IAEA: PRIS). The map on the top indicates each country’s current status of nuclear power stations. The light green/blue-colored countries are countries planning new reactors. The spread of these colors on the map clearly tells international trend of introducing and maintaining nuclear energy.

In many cases, countries craving nuclear technology try to obtain technical and institutional assistance from nuclear advanced countries, rather than to develop it by their own. For instance, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam have become potential nuclear capable countries by signing bilateral agreements with the United States for developing nuclear energy industry. India’s nuclear program originally started with civilian nuclear assistance from Canada in 1956 (Matthew Fuhrmann, “Atomic Assistance: How Atoms for Peace Programs Cause Nuclear Insecurity,” Cornell University Press, 2012. 94). Even Japan, despite its horrific experience in Fukushima, resumed negotiations with India for a civil nuclear cooperation deal in September 2013.

Potential Global Catastrophe: No.4 Reactor in Fukushima

The nuclear disaster in the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant forced over 300,000 people to evacuate from their home, and vast areas around Fukushima nuclear plants will not have been inhabitable for decades (New York Times). It is also statistically undetectable to accurately assess accumulated future impacts of radiation exposures in the long run.

In addition, potential adverse effects would not be only domestic, but also global. Currently, No. 4 reactor in Fukushima No.1 plant, which contains a total of 1,535 fuel rods, or 460 tons of nuclear fuel in its storage pool, is about to collapse (ENE news). To prevent its total collapse, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has conducted earthquake-resistant construction and a 273-ton mobile crane construction above the building to operate a removal of those fuel rods from a severely damaged storage pool. In September 2013, TEPCO finished the construction and is planning to begin operating a removal of fuel rods from the mid-November 2013. However, the removal of the fuel rods, according to an anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman, will be “the most dangerous engineering task ever undertaken” (Global Research). A fallout researcher Christina Consolo also says, “The operation to begin removing fuel from such a severely damaged pool has never been attempted before. The rods are unwieldy and very heavy, each one weighing two-thirds of a ton” (RT). If the pool were broken and run dry by future aftershocks, the massive amount of radiation equivalent to that by 14,000 Hiroshima bombs would give off (Global Research). In this case, according to World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013, a worst case scenario would still apply, that is, “Evacuation of over 10 million residents in the wider Tokyo megalopolis within a 250-km radius of Fukushima Daiichi, depending on wind direction,” drawn up in March 2011 by Prof. Kondo, Chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC). (World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013, 65)

If Kondo’s worst case scenario were to become a reality, it could rapidly develop into the world worst apocalypse. For example, a massive amount of refugees from Tokyo would lead to a complete dysfunction of Japanese capital. If the world third economy were dead, global financial systems would collapse. Tentative foreign occupation would be inevitable too. Subsequent economic and political impacts on the rest of the world are inconceivable.

The potential risk of No.4 Reactor in Fukushima indicates that all the other reactors around the world and new facilities planning in the future would have potential for another nuclear catastrophe. Before encouraging nuclear energy technology worldwide, it is imperative to set comprehensive legal, normative and technical frameworks for guaranteeing nuclear safety.

Enrichment technology and proliferation concern
Another concern about global expansion of nuclear energy technology is nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear technology for building and operating power plants should not be considered as a separate issue from nuclear weapons proliferation. If a state knows how to build and operate nuclear power reactors, it will be arguably able to apply the knowledge and technology to making a nuclear bomb. The threshold of its military application is enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) capabilities. The ENR technology enables a state to transform natural uranium (0.7% of U-235), low-enriched uranium (LEU: lower than 20% of U-235) or spent nuclear fuels to weapon-grade fissile materials (highly-enriched uranium (HEU: greater than 20% of U-235) and plutonium). The graph below shows the relationship between technological efforts and the degree of uranium enrichment. As the graph shows, if a state acquires 4-5% of ENR capabilities, it is far less difficult for the state to reach weapons-grade enrichment than the initial step up to 4-5% ENR. Although the IAEA safeguard restrains the Party states from enriching more than 20% of uranium, there is no comprehensive regime of restrictions on ENR capabilities itself. For now, the United States, the biggest nuclear market of the world, allows Japan, Europe and India to conduct reprocessing activities, while it doesn’t allow South Korea, the UAE and others. The expansion of nuclear technology, coupled with the discriminatory approach by the U.S., may provoke international controversy and drive some states to conduct clandestine ENR activities, which raises proliferation concerns.

Establishing bottom-up and coherent nuclear safety regime

Reviewing the current risks of nuclear energy industry, this report highlights two policy suggestions to prevent a nuclear catastrophe by “peaceful” nuclear energy: 1) bottom-up nuclear safety regime, and 2) more coherent ENR regulation.

1) Bottom-up nuclear safety regime

At the international level, the IAEA has established a comprehensive post-Fukushima nuclear safety framework. In the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS)'s Second Extraordinary Meeting in August 2012, the Contracting Parties agreed that they reassess safety of their nuclear power plants and reinforce their safety systems based on lessons learned from the Fukushima accident. The review of the CNS is helpful for all the Contracting States to strengthen a governments-initiative top-down approach toward nuclear security.

However, a comprehensive nuclear safety regime should not be limited to only governments-initiative. Nuclear world is extremely complex, involving military, industrial, financial, scientific, political interest groups. What if governments do not have adequate capabilities to control the complicated interests?

For example, some experts point out Fukushima could have been prevented if Japan’s nuclear regulators understood a set of international standards and were well prepared for the potential risks of tsunamis. Nuclear experts James Acton and Mark Hibbs argue that Japan acknowledged the tsunami risks in Fukushima but failed to comply to international standards because the plant owner, Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO) ignored the standards (New York Times).

This negligence of safety standards is attributed to Japan’s unique and powerful nuclear interest group called “Genshiryoku-Mura” (Nuclear Power Village), which comprises of electric and manufacture companies (including TEPCO), Ministry of the Economy and Technology and Industry (METI), nuclear scientists, journalists and even mafias. The “Village” has created a powerful and exclusive interest group in Japanese nuclear industry, and therefore it often slackened the national safety standard of their power plants (Mainichi Shimbun, February 12, 2012). Thus, where such a corrupted nuclear society exists, governments-initiative top-down approaches will not be effective enough to prevent the next Fukushima.

To establish more effective nuclear safety regime, a bottom-up approach is indispensable. Non-governmental actors such as multilateral companies, independent research organizations and advocacy groups should have more important roles in creating global safety norms through international organizations apparatus. For example, the IAEA will need to be more active for strengthening these non-governmental actors’ role by providing them with global forums and workshops. Global non-governmental institutions such as the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) will have to take strong leadership to create robust nuclear safety norms and standards. These non-governmental institutions can play different roles from governments, including providing more sophisticated technical reviews, and monitoring governments’ obligation to international standards. These institutions should also closely connect with local NGOs which can have closer ties with grass-root-level agencies. Such connections from local to global NGOs will create influential third party’s monitoring eyes to prevent government-centered structural negligence.

In particular, the bottom-up approach will be essential to monitoring safety standards in developing countries. Many of countries pursuing peaceful nuclear technology are developing countries in North Africa and Southeast Asia, where their governmental systems tend not to be well-organized. In such countries, it is not always the case that governments can control and monitor a variety of actors of their nuclear programs. In fact, one of the major structural failures of Japan’s “Genshiryoku-Mura” was heavy involvement of pro-nuclear private agencies (e.g. TEPCO’s employees) in the government’s regulatory bodies. Such a “co-existence of regulators and regulated” caused negligence of safety obligation, and resulted in a devastating disaster in Fukushima. Given that such a structural corruption occurs more easily in poorly-institutionalized governments, a top-down safety regulation by international organizations like the IAEA would not be necessarily adequate to monitor a structural failure of nuclear safety obligation. From this perspective, non-governmental approach, creating robust nuclear safety norms and standards from a grass-root level, will be able to educate, train and monitor a broader range of people involved in a nascent nuclear program. This grass-root approach will play a salient role in creating safety-first norms and preventing developing countries from building a profit-driven corrupt group.

2) Coherent ENR regulation

Furthermore, the international community should seriously consider about building international ENR regulatory framework. As mentioned, the U.S. approach toward the ENR regulation is discriminatory so that some countries would claim a right to obtain ENR as a fair deal. As far as nuclear proliferation is concerned, it is necessary to build a more coherent ENR regulatory framework.

One solution is to develop the IAEA’s LEU bank. The bank provides states with access to enriched nuclear fuel, without ENR. The development of the international nuclear supply system enables the international community to remove anxiety about nuclear proliferation by states’ ENR capabilities. The IAEA-led LEU supply system can create more coherent ENR regulatory framework.

Another solution is to ban states from operating commercial reprocessing facilities. In reality, there is no country that is technologically feasible to operate a commercial reprocessing facility. Japan is one of the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWSs) that the United States allows to conduct reprocessing activities. Japan is also the closest to realizing the commercialization of a reprocessing facility. But its operation has been postponed a number of times due to technological problems, which casts doubt on the safety and cost-performance of reprocessing. If Japan decided to phase out reprocessing, the international ENR regulatory framework would be more coherent and thus decrease concerns about nuclear proliferation.

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