The world is demanding rigid international rules on the safety specifications of nuclear plants to make sure they are entirely safe. The world also demands total transparency with independent auditing and inspection to make sure nuclear plant projects incorporate these requirements.

Up to now, nuclear plant safety has been considered a single country’s problem. A local regulatory agency set specifications and requirements for construction and has the authority to license these plants for operation. However, Chernobyl and Fukushima have made it clear that the release of radiation is not only a local issue. Released radiation may cross borders and become an international issue. The first world reaction to the release of radiation at Fukushima was to call for international rules.

Pierre Gadonnieux, chairman of the World Energy Council, said recently that it would be necessary to have serious regulatory agencies with the power to shut down the plant. For regulatory agencies with officers nominated by governments subject to political interference, this level of independence is impossible to achieve.

There is also the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, which is essentially a data recorder, adviser and political body. It has no authority over individual countries’ regulatory agencies and has never issued any international nuclear power station specifications. As a branch of the UN, it is completely insensitive to world concerns, and should be dissolved.

The world needs an international independent technical agency with the authority to license plants constructed according to the safety specifications that it publishes. To receive an operating licence, any plant should be open to technical inspection during all phases of construction, and have its final safety report audited and approved by this agency. Nuclear insurance would be contingent on such a licence.

This scheme would not prevent a country from having its own national rules, running its own regulatory agency, making its own decisions about installing nuclear power plants, and issuing its own licences.

Safety at all nuclear power plants and nuclear installations should be regulated independently in accordance with two safety requirements. The first, mandatory, requirement is that the risk of radioactive contamination escaping from the plant into the external environment is zero. Adherence to that rule would help people around the world accept the use of nuclear energy.

Several agencies have already adopted requirements that improve a plant’s ability to resist power failures, sabotage, internal explosions, and natural phenomena such as earthquakes, tsunami and flooding, without releasing radiation. Although these requirements increase the cost of the plants, that price is worth paying to remove doubt from people’s minds about the safety of nuclear installations. From an engineering design and construction point of view, this requirement is feasible.

&#8220Setting international rules for nuclear power plants is not a difficult job. The problem is to put the specialists together, without the interference of government, and democratically vote for approval of proper rules.”

The second safety requirement is related to the specifications of the nuclear power station process plant itself. It is impossible for humans to prevent every failure in the process plant equipment that they design, build and fabricate, and inspect and operate. But we can design, build and operate a system that contains the consequences of the failures of its components inside enclosures, with a guarantee of no external release of radiation. No device that helps maintain the basic safety of the plant should be installed outside the radiological containment dome. Inside they would be protected from external threats. If installed outside, they should still be provided with the same protection.

It would be difficult to set up an international independent technical agency to prepare, publish, manage comments, approve and issue international rules for nuclear power plants.

There would be reaction against such an agency from governments. Their regulatory agencies are used to create advantages for local power companies. Their politicians are vulnerable to lobbying from those companies in the form of financial contributions to elections. Power companies would prefer to minimise reactor construction costs. Also, the reactor vendors will insist on maintaining their standard designs.

Setting international rules for nuclear power plants is not a difficult job. Technical people, engineering companies, regulatory agencies and the IAEA together have all necessary knowledge to set up these special safety specifications and rules. The problem is to put the specialists together, without the interference of government, and democratically vote for approval of proper rules.

The biggest test of this system would come when it came to be time to update operating power plants to meet the new international regulations. All the power companies operating these reactors, some over 40 years of operation life, are licensed by the country’s regulatory agency, have insurance contracts, electricity supply commitments and everything needed to operate the plant. Who would pay for the engineering update of plants?

There are other questions, too. How would those updates affect the price of energy? What would happen with the insurance contracts? All of these issues would require the involvement of the local regulatory agency that was responsible for granting plant licences, and its government. This would be a complex and time-consuming proposition, but it is essential to restore the confidence of people in government decisions related to the use of nuclear energy.

This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.

Author Info:

Antonio Didier Vianna, independent nuclear engineer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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