Friday, September 23, 2011

The United Nations and Fukushima

alg_un_clintonSome words from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the United Nations:

The Obama Administration is committed to nuclear power as a component of our secure energy future, and we recognize that nuclear power is a vital contributor to the world’s growing energy needs. It is, therefore, not an option that we simply can take off the table.

But:

But it is an option that carries special risks and dangers. Therefore, we must do everything possible to ensure its safe and responsible use. We must remain vigilant against outside threats and internal weaknesses to prevent accidents from occurring. We must make continuous improvements to regulations and strengthen implementation of existing conventions so we hold ourselves, and others, to the highest standards.

One might call all this self-evident, but she was speaking at a high-level meeting on nuclear safety of the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, so perhaps we can allow for the self-evident.

Here is Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the same meeting (somewhat loosely translated):

Japan is determined to raise the safety of nuclear power generation to the highest level in the world. In addition to the emergency measures already taken, we plan to establish ''The Nuclear Safety and Security Agency'' around April of next year, by separating off the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, to accomplish the independence of nuclear regulation from promotion, for the purpose of centralizing the regulatory system and ensuring a thorough safety culture.

He is here responding to criticism that the Japanese equivalent of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission resided in the equivalent of the Commerce Department. The latter is a cheerleader for industry, the former is meant to oversee an industry, but sometimes defaulted to an industry-friendly stance. This did the Japanese nuclear energy industry no favors, at least in Noda’s view.

Noda is still keeping the regulatory body within the direct purview of government – the NRC is an independent government agency, more removed from politics – but fine. That’s how Japan wants to do it. Different countries handle their regulators differently.

Here’s a bit from Noda’s speech that struck us:

Japan stands ready to respond to the interest of countries seeking to use nuclear power generation. For several years, emerging nations and many other countries around the world have earnestly explored ways of using nuclear energy amid the need for energy security and in response to global warming. Japan has been supporting their efforts, including their improvements of nuclear safety. Japan remains steadfast in responding positively to their interest in our undertakings.

I had run into a couple of stories about Japan bidding for nuclear-related work in other countries – this is the kind of thing a Commerce Department facilitates diplomatically - but it’s interesting to see Noda make a point of it.

It serves to remind us that nuclear energy is not just an economic engine domestically but also as an export. I’ve written here about different countries considering nuclear energy and shopping among their choices for technology – the United States, France, Russia, South Korea, Japan. Nuclear technology is not just a purveyor of electricity but an economic force. Noda has this exactly right.

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Now, the U.N. being the U.N., the goal behind the meeting was to take the international temperature on nuclear energy. And perhaps one can conclude that the fever has gone down and the patient has lost a bit of weight, but that’s about all.

Indeed, it has been left to the International Atomic Energy Agency to initiate the therapy. At its international conference that concludes today in Vienna, the IAEA has passed its action plan on Nuclear Safety. This means the plan faced the meat grinder of consensus, as every country had to approve it. But it hasn’t been ground down to pabulum.

The voluntary plan, prepared by the office of IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, calls on member states to promptly assess their nuclear power plants to determine whether they can withstand extreme natural hazards. The members would also take steps to remedy any weaknesses and strengthen emergency preparedness.

Well, maybe it has been ground down a little bit. What the IAEA would like in an ideal world is the ability to do inspections itself and to impose rules more forcefully, but that raises issues of national prerogative. So, on the one hand:

One group of nations -- including Germany, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Canada and Denmark -- voiced disappointment about the final version of the IAEA's safety action plan for not going far enough.

It represents a "considerable step backwards" compared with the aspirations voiced by many at a ministerial safety meeting in June, the Swiss representative told the board.

And on the other:

The United States, India, China and Pakistan were among countries resisting any moves towards mandatory outside inspections of their atomic energy facilities.

Both sides have valid points. Navigating between them is what the IAEA had to do because it had to find consensus. That’s what U.N. agencies do. And it did find it, likely to the full satisfaction of few.

All that said, it’s not a bad document, if perhaps more useful to countries with small nuclear fleets and those considering nuclear energy for the first time. The IAEA hasn’t posted the final version, but a late draft can be found here.

Secretary Hillary Clinton. Not from the meeting yesterday, but we wanted her and the U.N. symbol. This is from March.

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