U.S. Said to Join Russia in Blocking Nuclear Safety Moves

U.S. Said to Join Russia in Blocking Fukushima Safety Response
Members of the media and Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) employees wearing protective suits and masks visit the central control room for the No. 1 and No. 2 reactors at the company's Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Photographer: Koji Sasahara/Pool via Bloomberg

The U.S. and Russia are joining forces to block a European plan to raise the protection of nuclear reactors against natural disasters after the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant, diplomats say.

Envoys from both countries are trying to derail a Swiss-led initiative that would force nuclear operators to invest more on safety, undermining attempts to harmonize global safety regulation, according to eight European and U.S. diplomats who attended meetings in Vienna last week. All asked not to be named in line with rules kept by the Convention on Nuclear Safety, the legal body overseeing the talks.

Even as relations between Russia and the U.S. have sunk to a post-Cold War low over the crisis in Ukraine, the two powers have come together to press their shared interest in resisting more stringent safety guidelines, said the diplomats. The U.S. is the world’s biggest nuclear-power generator, while Russia exports more reactors than anyone else.

“Switzerland, as the initiator of the proposal, will continue to collaborate with all delegations and do everything to find a solution that is acceptable to all of us,” Georg Schwarz, deputy director general of the Swiss nuclear-safety regulator, ENSI, said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Nuclear Secrecy

The U.S.-Russia collaboration reflects a nuclear-safety convention whose secrecy is laid bare in documents obtained by Bloomberg News under a Freedom of Information Act request.

It also underscores the high stakes for an industry trying to bounce back after the Fukushima accident. European attempts to impose higher safety standards would make nuclear power more costly just as plant operators come under price pressure from cheaper natural gas.

Prompted by the March 2011 Fukushima incident, European regulators are seeking to rewrite international standards to ensure nuclear operators not only prevent accidents but mitigate consequences if they occur, by installing costly new structures built to survive natural disasters. The meltdown caused by a tsunami forced 160,000 people to flee radioactive contamination and led to the shutdown of all of Japan’s nuclear plants.

The European attempt became public in April during the previous Convention on Nuclear Safety meeting in Vienna. Switzerland consulted with engineers, regulators and diplomats from more than 50 countries before proposing the new rules. The stricter requirements were in line with a European Union directive issued three months later that required nuclear operators to bolster infrastructure at existing plants.

Less Stringent

U.S. regulators aren’t requiring the same stringent modifications, according to Edwin Lyman of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. European utilities pay as much as five times more to fit out plants to withstand earthquakes and floods as a result, he said.

Electricite de France SA is spending about 10 billion euros ($13 billion) on additional safety features for its 59 reactors, according to its regulator, the Autorite de Surete Nucleaire. U.S. utilities will spend about $3 billion on portable generators and cooling reserves for about 100 reactors, FirstEnergy Corp. President Pete Sena said in July 31 testimony to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

‘Hardened Core’

French costs are higher because operators have to build a “hardened core” around their reactors that will be able to contain fallout if an accident occurs, its regulatory chief, Jean-Christophe Niel, said in July testimony to the NRC in Rockville, Maryland. Engineers are designing reinforced bunkers for back-up power and installing emergency cooling systems to contain a meltdown. The country is also reinforcing the concrete bases of its oldest reactors and creating elite teams of emergency responders.

At last week’s meeting, convened at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s headquarters, Russian envoy Oleg Postnikov offered praise for his American counterpart, Eliot Kang, after the U.S. argued against the European initiative, people who attended the meeting said. U.S. officials confirmed that their delegation fell into an uneasy alliance with Russia.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on the record. Russian diplomats accredited to the IAEA didn’t respond to written requests and phone calls seeking comment.

‘Shocking’ Secrecy

Created in response to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown in Ukraine, the convention has struggled to broaden safety standards. The group’s own secrecy has often undermined its intents. One former French envoy, Jean-Pierre Clausner, said that the opacity of the organization was “shocking,” according to the documents obtained under the Freedom of Information request.

“The whole process needs to be reviewed and significant changes should be introduced if the contracting parties are willing to maintain the usefulness of the convention,” Clausner wrote in 2005, the first year that the body allowed notes taken from its meeting to be preserved.

While nuclear meltdowns are considered cross-border incidents because of the radioactive fallout that can result, no international authority exists to compel countries to adopt safety standards. Instead, regulators from around the world routinely review each other’s practices to figure out which works best. Laggards face peer criticism that can make them look bad in forums like the convention.

Falsified Data

At the convention’s 2008 meeting -- the last before Fukushima -- Japan was criticized by peers for being slow to overhaul a reporting system that had been caught using “falsified inspection data,” the documents show. Participants also urged Japan, then the world’s third-largest nuclear-power generator, to review how safe its reactors were against earthquakes.

Countries like China and India, where companies are building new reactors to cover growing electricity demand, have given some support to the European initiative, according to the diplomats. The safety-upgrade costs to new reactors aren’t as burdensome as retrofitting existing infrastructure, they said.

The U.S. said that the Europeans bushwhacked their delegation earlier this year by calling a vote to consider the safety amendment. The country’s nuclear industry would suffer if the European measure were to be adopted because it would create an international perception that the U.S. took safety less seriously.

“The nuclear industry in the U.S. is under great pressure from lower natural gas prices,” said Lyman from Vienna, where he is attending an IAEA meeting. “At the same time, the potential for capital upgrades to deal with post-Fukushima requirements was a worry that it could push them over the edge.”

Argentina’s IAEA envoy, Rafael Mariano Grossi, will convene the next safety meeting Feb. 9 to 13, when countries will decide on the Swiss measure.

The biggest challenge for the U.S. and Russia may not be convincing enough countries to vote against the measure, according to an official who organized last week’s talks. Their real test, he said, will be to come up with something better.

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