Seeking nuclear power standards

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Seeking nuclear power standards

It was initially predicted by some when the Fukushima nuclear accident occurred two years ago today that it would bring to an end the nuclear renaissance that was expected to help meet the world’s growing power needs. But reports about the decline of nuclear power appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

It is becoming increasingly clear that nuclear power will continue play a central role in solving what the World Energy Council (WEC) has called the “energy trilemma,” the ability of the world to ensure the security of energy supplies and provide energy access for the poorest people, while making sure that the environment is protected from harmful emissions.

As revealed in the WEC report “One year after Fukushima” published in 2012, more than 50 countries, half of them newcomers, are currently operating, building or considering nuclear power as a viable option for electricity generation, with at least 60 nuclear power plants now being built in China, India, Russia, Korea, France, Finland and the UAE. In contrast, only a few countries, including Japan and Germany, initially decided in principle to abandon nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

The future of nuclear energy appears secure as long as the safety and transparency of the nuclear industry is continuously reinforced. Public acceptance of nuclear power will be achieved if an efficient system of governance for nuclear safety is put in place that is internationally credible.

The Fukushima accident should be turned into an opportunity to reinforce the necessary international coordination on matters of nuclear safety. International governance on nuclear safety has already improved a lot since the late 1980s following the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, but more still needs to be done when it comes to the conception and design of nuclear plants; their operation, crisis management and dismantling; and the communications, transparency and control by independent authorities.

Reinforcing international coordination on nuclear safety is an ambitious goal considering the need to respect legitimate concerns as regards national sovereignty. But we believe progress can be made.

Currently, nuclear governance largely lies with nation states, with a limited level of oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency and peer review organized by the World Association of Nuclear Operators and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. These institutions provide the necessary foundation to advise and increase international coordination and cooperation on all aspects of nuclear safety.

An expression of consensus on the issue by representative international political bodies could help legitimize the move toward improved global governance of nuclear power.

Not only would such measures regain public trust in nuclear power, but would also increase the capacity of nation states to participate in international governance. International accord is hard to achieve on any topic, but the safety of global nuclear power is one of the rare issues on which international agreement can be achieved with a reasonable level of effort given its importance.

We realize this will be a gradual process. A survey of the 93 national committee members of the World Energy Council found that in terms of implementing safety and regulation, most WEC members showed strong political support for the adoption and convergence of international safety regulations, but this was not matched by support for the international enforcement of safety standards.

However, most member countries strongly agreed that there is a need to improve public understanding and acceptance of nuclear technology and its costs and risks.

We believe the process should begin with the development of minimum and harmonized international nuclear safety objectives, in coordination with the IAEA and national safety agencies. National adherence to these standards shall also be verified by a legitimate institution.

Examples of successful global governance can be found in many industries and may provide models for the nuclear power industry. The aviation industry, for example, has many similarities with the nuclear industry since both have competing designers, manufacturers and operators, all of whom work under national authorities. Yet, the aviation industry uses international certification standards to ensure airworthiness as well as protocols for navigation systems and other operation aspects. Aircraft safety is no longer a factor in the competition between manufacturers: competition works on other criteria.

Alongside these activities focused on nuclear safety, there should be parallel attempts to increase global governance of other energy sources. For example, offshore oil exploitation can pose serious problems to the environment as recent big oil spills proved. This question is going to become more crucial as the world attempts to conduct offshore drilling in the Arctic.

A good starting point in achieving these goals will be discussions among the government ministers and industry leaders who will attend the 22nd World Energy Congress in Daegu in October. We believe that WEC can be a catalyst in the world’s attempt to build dialogue, share vision and develop global governance for nuclear power and other energy sources to achieve a sustainable future.

*Cho Hwan-eik is president and chief executive of Korea Electric Power Corporation and chair of the Organizing Committee of the World Energy Congress. Pierre Gadonneix is chair of the World Energy Council.

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