Nuclear Safety and Security

UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon will host a High-Level Ministerial on Nuclear Safety and Security on September 22, 2011, in New York. This meeting is intended to “bridge the gap” between the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Nuclear Safety Ministerial and the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in 2012 in Seoul.

Q1: Japan’s nuclear accident in March 2011 at Fukushima has prompted a world-wide review of the safety of nuclear power plants. Are we doing enough?

A1: Many countries are now reviewing safety standards, regulations, safety performance, and disaster response plans for their nuclear power plants in the wake of Fukushima. A few have decided to shut down nuclear power plants, in some cases permanently (e.g., Germany and Switzerland). The European Union is conducting “stress tests” of reactors in Europe. In June, the International Atomic Energy Agency held a high-level meeting to examine gaps in the nuclear safety regime and identified specific actions to be taken. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed its 90-day, quick-turnaround review and will launch a longer, in-depth review.

The document that the UN secretary general will release this week at the high-level summit describes the accident at Fukushima as compelling “the international community to consider whether everything is being done to ensure nuclear safety” (emphasis added). This begs the question of whether it is necessary to do “everything” to ensure nuclear safety. If it is, are we imaginative enough to think the unthinkable? If not, are existing nuclear safety standards sufficient to ensure public trust in nuclear power? This will be a major challenge when parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety meet next year for an extraordinary session.

Q2: What’s the connection between nuclear safety and nuclear security?

A2: Nuclear energy is not sustainable unless it is safe, secure, and does not contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Safety, security, and safeguards measures all have the ultimate objective of protecting the public and the environment from releases of radioactivity, whether as a result of an accident, an incident (such as sabotage or theft), or the detonation of a radioactive dispersal device or nuclear weapon. Nuclear security is essentially the protection of nuclear material against theft through facility and site design or operations security. Elements of design and operation also support nuclear safety. One of the lessons of Fukushima is that the loss of on- and off-site critical infrastructure (e.g., electricity, roadways, communications) worsened the effects of the accident. Vulnerabilities in these could also degrade nuclear security.

Q3: Will the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit address nuclear safety?

A3: The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, which will be held in Seoul at the end of March, will have objectives similar to the 2010 summit in Washington, but it may contain a few new twists. It is likely that the summit will address, for example, the security of radioactive source material (such as that used in cancer treatments), which could be used not in nuclear weapons but in radioactive dispersal devices (so-called dirty bombs). There may be new initiatives also on information security and nuclear forensics measures. However, significant actions are still required to implement the work plan from the 2010 summit, and diluting the focus of the next summit could detract from the hard work of securing all vulnerable fissile material in four years.

Nonetheless, public concern about nuclear safety is very high around the world. Leaders should ride this wave of public engagement on nuclear safety to make lasting progress on nuclear security. Both are essential to a world in which nuclear risks are reduced. For Korea, in particular, the summit is a unique opportunity to demonstrate its leadership role in reducing those nuclear risks.

Sharon Squassoni is a senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Sharon Squassoni