UN Chief Charts Five-Step Path to Global Nuclear Safety

KIEV, Ukraine, April 19, 2011 – As he prepared to visit Chernobyl 25 years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outlined a five-step plan to strengthen global nuclear safety. In view of the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, Ban’s plan emphasizes “the new nexus between natural disasters and nuclear safety,” and “requires the active cooperation of the nuclear industry.”

The ongoing nuclear power plant crisis in Japan, like the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago in Ukraine, calls for “deep reflection” on the future of nuclear energy, Ban said today.

“As we are painfully learning once again, nuclear accidents respect no borders,” Ban told the Summit on the Safe and Innovative Use of Nuclear Energy, held in Kiev.

At the Kiev Summit, from left: Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych; European Commission President Jose Barroso (Photo by Paulo Filgueiras courtesy UN)

“They pose direct threats to human health and the environment. They cause economic disruptions, affecting everything from agricultural production to trade and global services,” said Ban.

“Because the consequences are catastrophic, safety must be paramount,” said the secretary-general. “Because the consequences are transnational, they must be debated globally.”

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and deadly tsunami on March 11 disabled the nuclear reactors at Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Power failures shut down the nuclear fuel cooling systems. Partial meltdowns of the fuel rods caused hydrogen gas explosions in three of the plant’s six reactors, releasing highly radioactive substances to air, soil and sea.

Last week, Japan’s nuclear safety agency raised the crisis level at the plant to a Level 7, the highest rank on the UN’s International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale and equivalent to the severity recorded after the Chernobyl disaster, which is the only other nuclear accident ever to have been rated a Level 7 event.

An explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 1986 spewed radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western Russia and Europe. At least 330,000 people had to be relocated. Now, millions of people live on contaminated land and a central core is closed forever to human habitation.

The Chernobyl Pledging Conference today raised the major part of funds needed to construct a sarcophagus to house the toxic remains for another century. Snow, rain and rust have weakened the first shelter, built 25 years ago and designed to last 20.

Chernobyl’s damaged main reactor hall and turbine building (Photo source Soviet authorities via Wikipedia)

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the conference that Chernobyl and recent events in Fukushima, Japan, were a reminder that nuclear risks do not stop at a country’s borders.

Barroso pledged $156 million from the European Union to rebuild the Chernobyl containment shell. The United States delegation, led by former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski made the largest single nation donation, $123 million.

By the end of the day, pledges had come in for $780 million of the final $1 billion needed to finish the containment. Total cost for the new sarcophagus is $2 billion. It is expected to be complete by the end of 2015.

“By joining forces, we can make sure that the tragedies of Chernobyl and Fukushima are a thing of the past, not a harbinger of the future,” Secretary-General Ban told the summit, introducing his five-step plan to accomplish that goal.

First, Ban said, enhancing nuclear safety must begin with “a top to bottom review” of current nuclear safety standards, both at the national and international levels.

National governments must consider lessons learned from both nuclear disasters and adopt the highest possible safety standards, he advised. “This includes safety precautions, staff training, a reliable quality assurance system, and independent regulatory oversight. It also means greater transparency if there is to be public trust.”

Many governments already are reassessing their national policies and regulations, said Ban. “Last week’s review meeting of the Convention on Nuclear Safety in Vienna also produced many useful suggestions,” he said, urging all governments that have not acceded to this treaty to do so “without delay.”

Second, the secretary-general said the time has come to strengthen the capacity of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, “in the further development and universal application of the highest possible nuclear safety standards.”

World leaders address nuclear safety in Kiev on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl. (Photo by Paulo Filgueiras courtesy UN)

The upcoming IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in June in Vienna provides the next forum to advance this goal.

Ban said he will consider convening a high-level meeting on strengthening the international nuclear safety regime when world leaders gather in New York this September for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly.

“We need international standards for construction, agreed guarantees of public safety, full transparency and information-sharing among nations,” he said.

“Third,” Ban said, “we must put a sharper focus on the new nexus between natural disasters and nuclear safety. The challenge of climate change is bringing with it greater extremes of weather. Nuclear power plants must be prepared to withstand everything from earthquakes to tsunamis, from fires to floods.”

According to the IAEA, 64 new reactors are under construction. Today, 443 reactors are operating in 29 countries worldwide, some located in areas of seismic activity.

“This requires us to place new importance on disaster preparedness, in rich and poor nations alike,” Ban said.

“Japan, after all, is among the best prepared and most technically advanced nuclear energy powers,” he said. What are the implications for countries that are less ready for the worst?”

Ban said he would ensure that disaster preparedness for nuclear accidents is included in the Third Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva in May.

Hydrogen explosions blasted reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (Photo courtesy TEPCO)

“Fourth,” said Ban, “we must undertake a renewed cost-benefit analysis of nuclear energy.”

The right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and nuclear power will likely continue to be an important resource for many nations and can be a part of a low-carbon-emission energy mix. But “it has to become credibly safe, and globally so,” Ban declared.

“It is time to pause and rethink our approach,” Ban said and to this end he plans to launch a UN system-wide study on the implications of the accident at Fukushima.

“Fifth,” Ban said, “we need to build a stronger connection between nuclear safety and nuclear security.”

“At a time when terrorists and others are seeking nuclear materials and technology, stringent safety systems at nuclear power plants will reinforce efforts to strengthen nuclear security,” he said. “A nuclear power plant that is safer for its community is also one that is more secure for our world.”

“As I proposed at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last year,” said Ban, “a broad-based partnership is essential to building a better framework for nuclear safety and security. Such an approach is critical in the run-up to the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit.”

In the European Union, Barroso told the summit, “We have established a common binding legal framework for the safety of nuclear installations, defining fundamental obligations and principles.”

“Moreover,” he said, “we are expecting that an EU legally binding framework on the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste will be adopted soon.”

Denis Flory, the IAEA deputy director general for nuclear safety and security, told reporters in Vienna that although the situation remains very serious at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, there are early signs of recovery in some functions, such as electrical power and instrumentation.

On Sunday, TEPCO issued a plan to bring the stricken facility under control. The roadmap outlines 63 measures to be taken in two steps over a period of six to nine months.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.