The disaster in Fukushima in March 2011 revealed serious technical and institutional weaknesses, which had to be and are still being fixed throughout the world. This is essential, if nuclear power is to play an increasing role in countries’ energy mix and as a clean energy option in the face of climate change concerns and the reduction of the use of fossil fuels. Since the Fukushima accident, major steps have been taken to rebuild confidence that nuclear power plants are safe from accidents and secure against terrorist attacks. This reassessment includes implementation of higher safety and security standards, stronger emergency response, and expanded peer reviews to demonstrate compliance with strengthened standards. Such work, where the International Atomic Energy Agency plays a pivotal role, relies heavily on expanded international cooperation. The Global Nuclear Safety and Security Framework (GNSS) not only pools resources and shares best practices, but also promotes regional cooperation, which is indispensable to demonstrate to neighboring countries that nuclear energy is used in a safe and secure manner.
But challenges still remain. At the end of 2014, there were 438 nuclear power reactors operating around the world with 70 nuclear reactors under construction. Asia, with its 46 reactors under construction, is the growth center, though new projects are also emerging in the Middle East, Africa, and South America. A substantial part the growth of nuclear power is also being introduced to new countries. Many of these countries have limited financial resources. Their legal and regulatory aspects as well as nuclear expertise are either at early stages of development or on-going in building up expertise – all of which calls for international cooperation to ensure that nuclear energy will be used in a safe and secure manner. Some of these newcomer countries may also be looking at having nuclear power plans built, owned, and operated wholly by foreign entities. This will bring an entirely new set of challenges to domestic regulators and legislators,
Strengthened regulatory activities have in recent years also exposed the use of counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect components and systems in nuclear power plants. Combat against such malpractices is essential for safety and security, since corruption continue to exist in many countries.
Expanded use of nuclear energy means extended use of nuclear materials, and increased risk for nuclear proliferation. The nuclear non-proliferation regime has been under a stress for two decades when trying to solve the cases of North Korea, Iran and Syria. In recent times, the P5+1 and Iran have agreed on a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that seeks to curb Iran’s nuclear program. It is a complex agreement. On 18 October the JCPOA entered its adoption phase. Under this phase, Iran will roll back its uranium enrichment program and enriched uranium stocks to scale. In other words, this limits Iran’s ability to produce high-enriched uranium enough for one nuclear device in less than a year under the Agreement’s terms at known facilities. Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor will be converted to a smaller research reactor. The IAEA will have an extensive monitoring scheme in place in Iran for more than a decade. However, Iran will continue to maintain its enrichment capability, which it can start to expand after a decade, and Iran has not explicitly foregone its reprocessing aspirations. Iran’s neighboring countries will make their own assessments and the IAEA’s concerns about the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program may put some countries in the region to consider with the medium term to match Iran’s enrichment capacities. Whether and to what extent this occurs depends as well on other factors and variables. These are not the only questions to be addressed. Does it also mean that the agreement with Iran sets a new standard where a country – in non-compliance with its international undertakings – can maintain and develop further its enrichment capabilities? Here in Asia, there have been many attempts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Will there be a new approach to North Korea?
The nuclear landscape will evolve over the coming two decades. So will the nuclear futures of countries. We would see more new-comer nuclear power users; yet other countries are becoming less reliant on nuclear energy; while others will rise as emerging technology holders and rise in the ranks as nuclear suppliers.
About the Speaker
Dr Olli Heinonen is Distinguished Visitor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Before joining the Belfer Center in September 2010, Olli Heinonen served 27 years at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Dr Heinonen was the Deputy Director-General of the IAEA, and head of its Department of Safeguards. Prior to that, he was Director at the Agency’s various Operational Divisions, and as inspector including at the IAEA’s overseas office in Tokyo, Japan. Dr Olli Heinonen studied radiochemistry and completed his PhD dissertation in nuclear material analysis at the University of Helsinki.