CSCAP Nuclear Energy Experts Group Meeting
Singapore, 27-28 February 2017
RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies and Pacific Forum-CSIS co-organised the 6th meeting of the Nuclear Energy Experts Group of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) at Hotel Jen Tanglin in Singapore from 27-28 February 2017. Forty participants and nuclear experts from 14 Asia-Pacific countries, including Singapore, deliberated on nuclear power development and nuclear governance in the Asia-Pacific; physical protection of nuclear facilities; cyber nuclear security threats; radioactive sources management; and public opinion, education and training. Assoc Prof Mely Anthony, Head of NTS Centre, co-chaired the NEEG meeting while Mr Julius Cesar Trajano, Associate Research Fellow at NTS Centre, delivered a presentation on nuclear energy plans in Southeast Asia, including the significance of Vietnam’s decision to scrap its nuclear power project.
Nuclear power development in the Asia-Pacific
The cancellation of Vietnam’s nuclear power plant construction project is one important development that may have an impact on Southeast Asia’s nuclear energy outlook. The cancellation was primarily due to the rising cost of the project and lower energy demand forecast until 2030. Vietnam will rely mostly on coal and hydropower from Laos’ Mekong dams to meet future energy demand sans nuclear power. With the cancellation of Vietnam’s nuclear energy programme, Southeast Asia is unlikely to have nuclear power before 2030. It remains to be seen if Vietnam’s cancelled project will affect nuclear plans in other Southeast Asian. Nuclear plans in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines have always been subject to domestic sentiments due to nuclear safety concerns after the Fukushima accident. In the Philippines, the new government is now conducting a feasibility study whether the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant can be rehabilitated. However, major challenges such as lack of human resources, possible seismic activities near BNPP, and local opposition will have to be addressed first by relevant authorities.
Another important development is the possible utilisation of small modular reactors, including floating nuclear reactors in the region. China and Russia are currently developing floating reactors; China General Nuclear Power Corp has announced it started constructing floating reactors that may be deployed in the South China Sea by 2020. There has been a growing interest among nuclear experts in the possible commercialisation of floating SMRs in the Asia-Pacific which is worthy of more debates over its implications on nuclear safety and security governance in the region. If successfully commercialised, floating SMRs may be more palatable for ASEAN Member States than the conventional land-based nuclear power plants. Floating SMRs may also help energise far-flung areas and islands of Southeast Asia and may feed into the region’s decentralised power grid system. SMRs may be more affordable than conventional NPPs and if ASEAN decides to develop microgrids, instead of the costlier ASEAN Power Grid, SMRs can complement with decentralised microgrids.
But there are key challenges to the possible deployment of SMRs in the region. Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea, is a disaster-prone region. It remains to be seen how SMRs can address the risks from natural hazards such as tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons that may trigger nuclear accidents. There is also a need to come up and adopt a dedicated international legal framework for SMRs that adhere to safety conventions. Currently, the Convention on Nuclear Safety is only limited to land-based NPPs. Another challenge is to develop dedicated human resource development strategy for SMRs. National regulatory bodies need to have competent staff who can undertake independent reviews of the adherence of SMRs to nuclear safety and security within their jurisdictions. Countries that will buy floating SMRs have to come up with a broader regulatory framework that can cover SMRs. Floating SMR may also be met with domestic opposition particularly from fishing and tourism sectors.
Nuclear governance in the Asia-Pacific
While upholding nuclear safety and security is a state responsibility, greater international cooperation is necessary to help build the capability of each state to strengthen nuclear safety and security. Some experts argue that nuclear safety should be considered as a regional issue and regional cooperation is more appropriate whereas nuclear security is a global but sensitive political issue that cannot be addressed solely by regional bodies. However, other experts think that nuclear safety and security require both regional and global approaches. The whole notion of nuclear governance should not just be using top-down approach as governance can be made up of multiple processes involving both state and non-state actors. It is also about time to move away from governance focused on legislation towards capacity-building and the need to include contributions of other groups such as the scientific community and civil society.
In Southeast Asia, ASEANTOM has been organising technical meetings and training workshops focusing on emergency preparedness and response, nuclear forensics, radiation biodosimetry, and environmental radiological monitoring. The overall aim of all these activities is to boost cooperation and nuclear energy governance in the region. The European Commission and the IAEA have been assisting ASEANTOM in its activities, including funding the establishment of ASEAN Nuclear Forensics Centre, the joint emergency preparedness and response project, and the software for the region’s radiological monitoring station. Important challenges that still need to be addressed by ASEANTOM include lack of funding support, varying degrees of knowledge and expertise among ASEAN Member States, lack of financial support for implementation, the absence of binding regional framework, and weak commitment from policymakers down to the technical staff. ASEANTOM plans to conduct expert missions/exchange programmes, technical workshops and technical cooperation with international organisations to address such challenges.
Physical protection of nuclear facilities
There has been a perception among states that do not have nuclear power plants that nuclear security, particularly physical protection, is not their priority since physical protection is more of the problem for states that possess “real” nuclear materials (e.g., separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium), for the P5 states and other nuclear weapons-capable countries, and for nuclear power reactors. In Southeast Asia, physical protection of nuclear facilities is not being prioritised right now primarily due to the absence of nuclear power reactors in the region. Consequently, not all ASEAN Member States have signed or ratified the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and its Amendment. However, several ASEAN Member States possess research reactors which also require utmost physical protection. Research reactors are easier to be sabotaged compared to heavily guarded nuclear power stations and research reactor spent fuel can be used as radiological dirty bombs. Given that the risks to the physical protection of nuclear facilities and materials such as stealing of radioactive materials and nuclear terrorism have regional consequences, it is important for all ASEAN Member States to collectively adhere to the CPPNM Amendment.
Nuclear security culture plays a big role in enhancing physical protection. Nuclear security culture is defined as the assembly of characteristics, attitudes and behaviour of individuals, organisations and institutions which serves as a means to support and enhance nuclear security. It is crucial for individuals to have a questioning attitude and critical thinking so as to enhance the physical protection of nuclear facilities. Nuclear security culture needs to be developed locally and entails a long process. But domestic institutions can also learn on the best practices from other countries on developing nuclear security culture. Nuclear security culture should not be viewed as an agenda of the US or the West but a common agenda for all states.
Cyber nuclear security threats
With the increasing digitisation, there is a need to highlight the intersection of cyber security and nuclear security. A cyber attack on a nuclear facility or nuclear weapons could be catastrophic. Effects of a compromise could be on par with serious safety or security incident which includes radiological release and theft of nuclear materials. The cyber threat to nuclear systems and facilities is increasing with greater digitization of systems and sophistication of cyber attackers. Safety and physical protection systems often rely on digital components vulnerable to a well-resourced, determined adversary. Digital systems are inherently vulnerable and no technological solution can prevent all attacks. Even if a nuclear facility is not connected to internet, it is not a guarantee that the facility will not be compromised as cyber threat can be passed through removable flash drives. There is no overarching strategy to address the threat to nuclear facilities and the current approach is one of incremental change. While cyber security is considered a global issue, global technical capacity to address cyber-nuclear threat ranges from limited to virtually non-existent.
There is a need to institutionalise cyber-nuclear security culture which entails embedding cybersecurity in the daily operations of nuclear facilities including people and organisational culture, design solutions, and facility processes and practices. Institutionalisation involves top management of the organisation down to the technical staff which should all be equipped with the needed technical skills to mount an active cyber defence to detect and disrupt cyber intrusions as they happen. The nexus of increased digitisation, system complexity and more capable adversaries creates a dangerous mix. A new strategy is required to get ahead of the cyber threat to nuclear facilities.
Radioactive sources management
Unlike radioactive waste management regime, the radioactive sources regime is very weak even compared to patchwork with many holes of the nuclear security regime. Radioactive sources such as cobalt 60 and caesium 37 are frequently used in industries and in hospitals for medical treatment of tumours. However, these radioactive sources can be stolen and used in making dirty bombs or released indiscriminately that can threaten public health. Currently, there are no international liability conventions for radioactive sources akin to nuclear materials. The Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radiological Sources is not legally binding and adherence to it is voluntary. It also does not address key challenges sufficiently, including disposal, alternatives, liability, transport, and notification. Among ASEAN Member States, only Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam have full commitment—political commitment to the Code of Conduct.
There are several ways to protect and secure radioactive sources such as card control system, detection and monitoring system, delay/locked-up storage system, and response and communication system. There is also an e-control system for tracking dynamic situation of radioactive sources and there should be yearly inspections on radioactive sources. Mobile tracking devices can also be used to inspect vehicles to check if they are carrying radioactive sources. There are also alternatives to radiological sources which can be used for medical purposes such as proton cyclotron treatment and heavy ion cyclotron for cancer tumours, and mini-reactor neutron capture therapy for brain cancer. However, these alternatives are more expensive than the usual radioactive sources. Hospitals in developing countries still prefer to use standard radioactive sources to treat cancer cells. Moreover, compared to nuclear facilities, hospitals are less secured so the risk of stealing radioactive sources is high. Another key challenge is the lack of accounting of all available radioactive sources. Unauthorised use of these sources is usually detected only if there is an accident. There is no liability regime, so may it be a disincentive to establish protection system for radioactive sources.
If there is transboundary incident, there may be jurisdictional issues and enforcement mechanism issue due to the absence of liability regime. The significance of radiological source management regime probably lies in the area of liability beyond the risk security and an accident in the Asia-Pacific due to radioactive sources will probably drive Asia-Pacific countries, including ASEAN states, to establish radiological security regimes.
Public opinion, education and training
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conducts public engagement activities to keep the public and stakeholders informed of its activities and allay the fears of the general public by ensuring them that all NPPs in the US are safe and secure based on the country’s regulatory standards. External stakeholders are agencies, groups, elected officials, the regulated community, and individual citizens outside the agency that have either an administrative or personal interest in the NRC or the nuclear industry the NRC regulates. The objectives of public or townhall meetings are to ensure that members of the public have the opportunity to enhance their understanding of the agency’s regulatory process, ensure that all public meetings are noticed in a timely manner, and inform interested stakeholders about NRC’s meetings. Other public education and engagement activities of NRC include media outreach, education and business outreach, information meetings, conferences, emergency response exercises, public comments through the NRC website and email, and visitation by NRC inspectors to the communities near NPPs. As claimed by NRC staff, public involvement in, and information about, a nuclear regulatory body’s activities is a cornerstone of strong, fair regulation of the nuclear industry. It is important that regulators must build trust with their stakeholders to be effective in fulfilling its mandate. But one important question is: whose responsibility is public education?
Public opinion also matters in making government decisions whether to use nuclear power or reject it. For instance, in Japan, local communities near NPPs tend to be supportive of the re-opening of nuclear reactors as they are benefitting from the nuclear industry through jobs and taxes paid by utilities. Meanwhile, communities that are farther from NPPs are actively campaigning against NPPs and seek court injunctions to stop the re-opening of NPPs.
In terms of human resource development, the public disenchantment to nuclear power in several countries after the Fukushima accident has led to manpower shortage in the nuclear field. Nuclear professionals and technicians are ageing and the number of students who are taking up nuclear-related courses is steadily declining. Human resource development should be among the top priorities of a newcomer state before it decides to use nuclear power as it takes time, or at least 10 years, to build nuclear expertise. For instance, South Korea needed 10 years to establish a sustainable nuclear education programme even before the commissioning of its first NPP.
Rapporteur: Julius Cesar I. Trajano, Associate Research Fellow, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies