The Pacific Forum, in partnership with Chulalongkorn University’s Department of Nuclear Engineering, and with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, held a Nuclear Energy Experts Group (NEEG) meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on October 29-30, 2014. It brought together 29 specialists from 19 countries from throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond, all attending in their private capacity. The participants joined two days of off-the-record discussions on nuclear governance, the role of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process, gaps and limitations in nuclear governance, technical approaches to improving management of civilian nuclear activities, and regional approaches to improving nuclear safety and security governance. Participants also visited the Thai Research Reactor 1/Modification 1 (known as the TRR-1/M1), which is operated by Thailand’s Office of Atoms for Peace. At the reactor facility, they received briefings from various scientists and technical staff from the facility. Key findings from the meeting include:
Nuclear security governance is one piece of the broader nuclear-governance puzzle. A holistic approach to nuclear governance that includes nuclear safety, security, and safeguards is needed.
The institutionalization of nuclear governance has been fragmented and unsystematic. While a piecemeal approach wisely recognizes that it takes time to change attitudes on such sensitive topics, it ignores the urgency of working to better prevent, detect, and respond to a nuclear accident or incident.
Nuclear security mostly relies on voluntary obligations. There is no comprehensive international legal architecture allowing for evaluation of security consistency and competency across borders. There is no requirement for peer review or even communication among states about their security strategy and practices.
NSS process has helped strengthen nuclear-security rules and norms since its launch in 2010. It is unclear, however, how momentum will be sustained after the summit of 2016. NSS stakeholders and interested parties should develop a strategy to ensure that progress continues. Nuclear security, after all, is a journey, not a destination.
Sharing information on good standards, practices, and technologies is one way to improve nuclear security; another is to share bad practices to learn from mistakes. In recent years, progress has been made via discreet, behind-closed-doors initiatives. Yet, as a general rule, and unlike in the nuclear-safety domain, states have been reluctant to share information for national security reasons.
The Nuclear Security Summit process has not addressed important areas of concern. The security of weapon-usable nuclear materials, which accounts for 85 percent of nuclear materials worldwide, is not discussed. Other areas, such the use of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in naval reactors, are also ignored. States need to better balance national security and global responsibility.
Different countries and regions face different nuclear threats and the burden falls on states to address these threats. National threat assessments are needed to scope the problem, establish priorities, and guide policy in each state. Assessments should encompass at least three management areas: facilities that use/store nuclear and radioactive materials, transport of these materials, and nuclear accident/incident response and mitigation.
In the Asia-Pacific, priority should be given to the management of radioactive source materials outside the nuclear power industry. All states in the region possess such materials and have a vested interest in learning how to manage them in safe and secure manner. In particular, there is a need for better understanding of the processes involved in (and the implications of) the conversion of research reactors and isotope production facilities from the use of HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU), and the removal and disposal of excess nuclear and radioactive materials.
Overemphasis on the safe and secure management of nuclear energy programs should be avoided. Only a handful of regional states (in Northeast Asia and South Asia) have nuclear energy programs and, while many others (in Southeast Asia) have expressed interest, very few nuclear power plants will be operational in the near future.
Nevertheless, in-depth discussions are needed to better inform nuclear energy users and aspirants of their choices. Incentives for states interested in nuclear energy to refrain from developing indigenous enrichment and reprocessing facilities or to explore alternative options would be helpful.
There is both optimism and confusion about the role that the newly-launched ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM) could play in strengthening nuclear governance in the Asia-Pacific. Preliminary discussions suggest that it will solely be a technical body and that, unlike the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), it will not guide policy. A comprehensive assessment of its goals and objectives is needed to better understand how it can best contribute to top-down nuclear governance in the region.
The nuclear security centers of excellence in Japan, the Republic of Korea, and China – and others emerging elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific – can help build momentum for better bottom-up nuclear governance. While their focus has been on training and education, the centers could expand their mandate to include research and development and policy recommendations. They should also coordinate their activities to avoid duplication and take advantage of economies of scale. However, while there is general agreement among regional stakeholders that they represent an opportunity for cooperation in the Asia Pacific, there is no consensus on the division of labor among the centers.
Participants generally supported the idea of conducting a table-top exercise featuring a nuclear accident/incident in Southeast Asia at the next NEEG meeting. In addition to raising awareness about the challenges involved in such accidents/incidents, this exercise would help tease out the gaps and limitations in the response of regional states.