Japan’s Fukushima meltdown may force nuclear powers to change secrecy rules that have cloaked companies and regulators from scrutiny about the measures they take to ensure atomic reactors don’t threaten public safety.
The Convention on Nuclear Safety, drafted after the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine, must be updated to reflect changes to the industry and availability of open-source information about atomic emergencies, said nuclear law specialists including two lawyers who helped write the accord.
“After such a long passage of time since Chernobyl and the changes in technology, it may well be appropriate to revisit the basic structure of how information is shared under the convention,” Carlton Stoiber wrote from Washington in an e-mailed answer to questions. He helped the U.S. State Department draft the treaty, which was adopted in 1994.
The 72 countries that have signed the treaty convene next week for their triennial meeting in Vienna. The 10-day closed-door event, during which Ukraine and Japan are scheduled to provide safety assessments, is hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Measurement networks showing how radiation plumes move globally, along with commercial satellite imagery and Internet communication, mean the public has more information than ever before about the consequences of nuclear breakdowns. Policy makers will have to adapt, said Odette Jankowitsch-Prevor, an international nuclear-law specialist in Vienna who helped write the treaty as a senior legal officer with the IAEA.
There are “light years” of difference between the way people understood Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima today, Jankowitsch-Prevor said. The “internationalization” of nuclear companies such as Areva SA, Toshiba Corp.’s Westinghouse Electric Co. unit and Rosatom Corp. also underscores the need for the treaty to be updated, she said.
Nuclear industry representatives will join next week’s meeting as part of their national delegations, according to a preliminary list of people registered for the conference. Groups of countries will meet over four days and then present written confidential reports during three more days of private sessions.
“I now see the country groups as perhaps necessary during past phases of the process but something of an impediment to a thorough and objective review, given the current circumstances,” Stoiber said. “This is not merely a matter of opening the review process to the public, media, NGOs and others. It involves how the review is conducted and by whom.”
When the treaty was being drafted, some IAEA members wanted the agency to conduct safety checks of atomic reactors in a way similar to how the United Nations watchdog accounts for nuclear materials worldwide, Jankowitsch-Prevor said. The proposals were scuttled because some nations would never agree, she said.
“You have a great deal of secrecy in the nuclear industry,” she said. “There are issues of industrial protection and patents that countries will not automatically share with everybody else.”
Both lawyers said the IAEA must improve its international response to nuclear-safety issues. Member states attending the conference also expect the agency to enhance its role.
“China’s government attaches great importance to nuclear safety and supports the IAEA in promoting international cooperation on nuclear safety,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said yesterday in a briefing. China is “in close communication with IAEA” about the agency’s plans for a “high level” safety meeting in June, Jiang said.
“The dimensions of the Japanese accident are so large that no single entity has exclusive domain,” said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists who is a former safety instructor for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Parallel reviews” by different groups would help spot safety weaknesses, he said.
Greater public scrutiny may have uncovered decades of falsified safety reports in Japan before the Fukushima accident was triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant continue to emit radiation, contaminating the surrounding water, food and soil and sending plumes of radionuclides around the Earth’s atmosphere.
“After Chernobyl, it is the first case where we can show that we are not yet prepared to face a disaster of that dimension,” said Carvalho Soares from Portugal’s Nuclear Physics Center, who will be attending the Vienna meeting.
Japan will come under strong pressure at next week’s conference to provide a detailed account of what happened at Fukushima, said Trevor Findlay, Director of the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance.
“Japan has repeatedly been criticized for the alleged non-independence of its nuclear regulator, so there will be strong pressure on it to reform its national safety governance, including this aspect,” Findlay wrote in an e-mail from the Waterloo, Ontario-based institute. Treaty signatories should use the meeting to “strengthen the peer review process,” he said.