The nuclear disaster at Japan's earthquake and tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has again underscored both the need for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its limited authority and resources.
It will cost billions of dollars to stabilize the plants, close them, decommission their reactors and mitigate the radioactive contamination. Equally important, the Japanese crisis has exposed flaws in global safety and emergency response networks, underscoring the need for urgent remedial effort.
The coming decades will likely present new safety challenges with many of the world's aging nuclear reactors, which were built in the 1970s and 1980s, and the expected growth in the global use of nuclear power, still expected to occur despite the Japanese catastrophe. According to the IAEA, 443 nuclear reactors are operating in 29 countries. The agency reports that already 64 new reactors are under construction, mostly in China.
In addition to the increase in the sheer volume of nuclear activities that could go wrong, the IAEA and others have expressed concern that some national safety and regulatory infrastructures, including the training of sufficient personnel and enactment of needed legislation, may not have developed sufficiently to manage the growth.
The agency made a sustained campaign to strengthen international nuclear safety following the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986, but has made few changes since then despite major environmental transformations, including the proliferation of nuclear technologies and global climate changes that in some cases have increased the frequency of severe weather events.
According to the Center for American Progress, the unprecedented extreme weather events – which can include flooding, severe winter storms, heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes – in the United States have led the US Federal Emergency Management Agency to declare a record 81disasters last year, whereas during the previous six decades the average was less than half that.
At present, individual member countries are responsible for the safety of their nuclear activities. In the case of an accident, the IAEA can offer resources such as technical advice or names of foreign nuclear experts available for consultation, but the affected governments decide whether to use these assets. The IAEA has responsibility "to provide authoritative and validated information as quickly as possible," but the agency does not even have access to independent sources of information about the disaster. Instead, it must rely on whatever data the member countries provide, supplemented by the news media.
In the case of Fukushima, the agency receives information from a variety of official Japanese sources, but these are filtered through the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Yukiya Amano, IAEA director general, had to fly to Tokyo in an effort to induce the authorities to provide him with more data and on a faster basis.
This safety situation stands in stark contrast to that prevailing in the realm of nuclear nonproliferation, where safeguards are mandatory for those countries signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has almost universal membership. In addition, the agency has made major changes in how it enforces states' nonproliferation obligations since the Cold War.
Amano has said that the IAEA will undertake a comprehensive review of the incident after the emergency is resolved, the data have been analyzed and the agency's peer review process has occurred.
This April meeting of the parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), a legally binding international agreement to promote nuclear safety, safety culture, safety management and knowledge sharing, has already initiated international consultations regarding the Japanese nuclear accident. The convention, adopted in 1994, obliges members to submit reports regarding the safety of their civil nuclear installations for review by their peers at meetings that occur every three years. A seminar at this fifth CNS review meeting, attended by some 600 representatives of nuclear regulatory agencies and operating organizations from the 72 contracting parties to the safety convention, allowed the broader IAEA membership to discuss the implications of the crisis.
But the peer reviews appear not to have worked well in the case of Fukushima. Besides peer pressure, moreover, the CNS does not impose penalties for faulty reactors or their host countries. And the review does not extend to include on-site safety inspections. Most seriously, there is no means to force countries to close unsafe nuclear facilities or prevent them from building them.
At a subsequent April 19 international conference marking and seeking additional funds to manage the consequences of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon said that Chernobyl and Fukushima have demonstrated the need for a "global re-think" and a "top-to-bottom" review of nuclear-safety codes and regulations. Ban said he would launch a UN system-wide study, involving all the relevant UN agencies and specialized organizations, on the implications of the Fukushima accident. At this Summit on the Safe and Innovative Use of Nuclear Energy, Ban outlined a five-step plan to enhance nuclear safety: perform a top-to-bottom review of current nuclear safety standards, both at the national and international levels, strengthen support for the IAEA's nuclear safety role, focus on the new nexus between natural disasters and nuclear safety, undertake a renewed cost-benefit analysis of nuclear energy, build a stronger connection between nuclear safety and nuclear security.
In June, the IAEA will host a high-level Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna to address the political and technical issues raised by the Japanese crisis. Amano invited the ministers from all 151 IAEA member countries. Ban said he was considering convening a high-level meeting on strengthening the international nuclear-safety regime in September, when world leaders attend the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The high-level representation at these gatherings should provide the authority to consider urgently needed changes, but since much data from the still-dangerous Fukushima plant might not have been collected or analyzed by then, the ministers might simply empower bodies to analyze issues requiring further deliberation and recommend longer-term solutions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country generates the highest percentage of electricity from nuclear power, has called for adopting stronger standards by the end of the year.
Lessons from Japan are clear. The agency's role in nuclear safety and its safety standards need reassessment. For example, the nuclear-energy community needs to strengthen safety and security standards to account for the possibility of multiple simultaneous disasters – natural, as with the March 11 earthquake-tsunami combination that devastated Japan, or with a deliberate manmade element, such as a terrorist attack or a combined cyber-physical assault on a nuclear reactor.
Some experts have called for establishing mandatory nuclear-safety requirements that would include compulsory inspections. Strengthening IAEA authority is difficult since countries vigorously defend their nuclear autonomy. Increased safety standards raise construction and operating costs. Many developing countries fear that developed members' concern about nuclear weapons proliferation leads them to demand excessive safety and security requirements for the transfer of any peaceful nuclear technologies.
Nonetheless, it's reasonable to require member governments to provide more information about nuclear accidents to the agency, in a more timely way, considering how catastrophes on the scale of Chernobyl and Fukushima inflict transnational, even global, damage to human health, worldwide commerce and other networks, plant and animal life, and the environment. The IAEA also needs a dedicated group of nuclear experts that it can mobilize and dispatch in emergencies to provide on-site analysis to complement that of the national authorities.
Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis, the Hudson Institute, in Washington, DC. This is reprinted with the permission of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization