Lessons from Fukushima

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In the wake of Fukushima, there have been widespread calls for the safety of nuclear power plants to be enhanced. But how precisely? And, more specifically, what role can the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) play in improving nuclear safety and security? 

Olli Heinonen was until last August the Deputy Director-General for Safeguards at the IAEA. He’s now a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. On May 26, Heinonen co-authored an Op-Ed on the Harvard website with Matthew Bunn, an Associate Professor of Public Policy and one of the main investigators at the Belfer Center’s Managing the Atom project. The duo laid out some specific steps that they believe the IAEA should adopt at the Vienna-based agency’s ministerial meeting in late June. The full text of the document can be found here, but here’s a precis.

Push the international community to adopt higher safety standards This is obvious, but Heinonen and Bunn say that the focus should be not only on preventing accidents but preparing for them. So for example, plants or local governments could, while reviewing how to best ensure that a continuous power supply is never interrupted at a plant, also invest in mobile diesel generators that could be quickly moved to sites should power loss occur. They also recommend new guidelines for managing spent fuel pools to avoid fires breaking out should cooling fail because the water in the pool drains or evaporates—specifically, recently-used “hot” fuel assemblies could be interspersed with cool ones so as to minimize overheating in the case of a loss of coolant. In the wake of Fukushima, Tepco was criticized by other experts for cramming fuel assemblies into pools to save money and space—unfortunately, that’s common practice in the industry. Heinonen and Bunn echo the sentiment of many other experts when they write that, ultimately, most spent fuel should be move out of pools and into dry casks—which are much safer.

Focus on security not just safety This is a topic about which Bunn has published extensively, and it’s interesting to see Heinonen agree to put it high on the list. Their point is that nuclear operators pay too little attention to the sabotage threat; human agency could easily replicate the effects of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami. It’s difficult to get the nuclear industry to believe that nuclear terrorism is a credible threat. But then again, it was difficult to get it to believe that “defense in depth” safety systems could be rendered totally futile by a natural disaster. Now is the time, Bunn and Heinonen say, to convince the industry to prepare for all low-probability, high-impact events, including terrorism.

Emergency preparedness and response needs to be improved Do local fire services, police and medical responders regularly drill emergency response plans? Is a chain of command established for a crisis situation that goes right to the top of the national government and also to the IAEA? Many nuclear safety experts have criticized the IAEA’s secretary general, Yukiya Amano, for failing to provide leadership in the wake of the crisis—and as a journalist who covered the unfolding disaster, I did find that the IAEA was  slow to release reliable information about the situation, and the information it did release failed to clearly state the risks posed to human and environmental health.  Heinonen doesn’t go as far in criticizing his former organization, but he acknowledges that “the IAEA’s emergency response system should be strengthened.”

Set up international teams to review the safety and security measures in place at nuclear plants Perhaps the most contentious of the duo’s recommendations, as nuclear industry chiefs probably won’t be thrilled about IAEA inspectors touring its facilities as if they were rogue Iraqi or Syrian bomb makers. Currently, the nuclear industry undertakes peer reviews of safety, but tends to keep the results close to its chest. Bunn and Heinonen write, “completely independent reviews could help rebuild public confidence, and identify issues that may have been overlooked.” The pair admit that such reviews will be a “major effort” on the part of the IAEA but suggest that national experts and regulators could be “loaned out” to the IAEA so as to avoid the Vienna-based agency having to go on a hiring spree. “Only a modest increase in the IAEA budget would be needed,” the pair claims.

Eventually implement more legally binding safety standards While the IAEA sets out safety standards, they are not legally binding, which leaves the IAEA with no mandate to inspect the safety and security measures in place at nuclear facilities around the globe. Bunn and Heinonen argue that international legal standards are needed to supplement national laws because nuclear disasters, when they occur, quickly become an international problem. Radiation, after all, does not respect national borders.

Reading Bunn and Heinonen’s editorial as a whole, it’s clear to me that, more than any individual measure, the pair hope that Fukushima will instill in the nuclear community a certain mood. I’ll call it humility. Such humility is founded on an acknowledgment that humans still don’t have atomic energy fully under control. Perhaps we never will. As a journalist who has covered the nuclear industry, I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had nuclear power supporters tell me that another Chernobyl was “impossible”. Or that the spread of nuclear power poses no risk of leading to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Or that terrorists sabotaging a nuclear power plant—or using nuclear material to build an atomic bomb—is the stuff of science fiction. The nuclear industry—and all those who work to regulate and oversee it—should abandon  such bravado. Bunn and Heinonen close their Op-Ed with an important warning: “The lesson of Fukushima is that our beliefs that particular disastrous events are extremely unlikely may be wrong. We need to be prepared for surprises.”