Where Can We Set Standards, After Fukushima?
After the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan, the debate over how the incident will affect global plans for reactor construction is continuing. Germany has shifted sharply (though they had been seriously contemplating new nuclear policies for some time); China has paused approvals of new reactors; and the United States is bound to eventually revisit its safety regulations, if not its broader policy framework for nuclear power. Yet there is every indication that nuclear expansion will continue in many parts of the world. Few countries actually seem to be scaling back the nuclear plants that they have already deployed.
The international system will thus continue to need serious policy to address the safety of operating reactors. But there has been little discussion thus far of international steps that might be taken in response. Since nuclear accidents can have consequences that extend across borders, international coordination, if not common regulation, is a natural possibility to consider. But significant progress at least at a formal level will still be difficult to come by.
The most commonly considered response by the international community involves uniform minimum standards for reactor construction and safety. This might seem simple but it would be exceedingly difficult to put into practice. National regulators already face difficult challenges navigating industry and public concern in their own countries. Adding another layer of international requirements, which would need to extend across countries with very different attitudes toward technology and risk, would make that job even harder. Even the European Union has not been able to agree on common reactor safety standards for its own member states, making it difficult to believe that a broader set of international players would have better luck. Moreover, many countries – both developing and emerging – would inevitably resist stern international regulatory standards as an attempt to stymie their economic efforts.
A better alternative would be to increase international capacity to advise countries’ regulators and to review their approaches on a voluntary basis. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), given appropriate additional funds, could step into this role. It could either conduct reviews using its own staff or facilitate and perhaps audit ones by other countries.
Less discussed, but perhaps equally as important, is international coordination on disaster response. Less developed countries may in principle be able to develop safe reactors by bringing in appropriate expertise from abroad. But plant disasters like the one in Japan cannot be definitively excluded, and effective response will be key to limiting consequences of any incident. Alas, poorer countries are highly unlikely to be able to mount the sort of rapid response that Japan has. One need look no further than the challenges faced by China in responding to the Sichuan earthquake, and contrast that with the Japanese response over the past month. One cannot help but be worried.
Countries with expertise in responding to nuclear disasters could help address this by aggressively sharing their knowledge with colleagues in countries that have less disaster response capacity. This would not only help prepare more countries for disasters, it would also help develop trusted relationships that could facilitate cooperation in the event of a nuclear incident.
Though developing informal relationships among national regulators may be less reassuring than an international initiative that promises to make all reactors safe – it may prove ultimately be more valuable.
By Michael Levi
Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
Council on Foreign Relations