The Pacific Forum, in partnership with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, held a Nuclear Energy Experts Group (NEEG) meeting in Singapore, Singapore on October 15-16, 2015. It brought together 34 specialists from 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific and beyond, all attending in their private capacities. The participants joined a day and a half of not-for-attribution discussions on the Nuclear Security Summit process, nuclear governance after 2016, radioactive source management, and nuclear accident/incident response. Participants also explored a hypothetical scenario featuring a nuclear accident at a nuclear power plant in Vietnam. Key findings from the meeting include:
Over the last five years, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process has helped to raise awareness, spur national action, and increase adherence to relevant international instruments. According to one participant, the NSS agenda has been all but exhausted. Nonetheless, it is unclear how momentum will be sustained after the next–and final–summit, scheduled to take place in Washington next spring. NSS stakeholders should develop a strategy to prevent backsliding and ensure continued progress.
Participants presented a number of proposals for institutionalizing the NSS process. One suggested hosting a head-of-state summit every four years, a minister-level summit every two years, and annual conferences focusing on specific issues. Others suggested having the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) hold regular conferences, including the nuclear security discussion within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conferences, or creating an international nuclear security convention.
The majority of participants thought the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has already been active in nuclear security, would be the best candidate to take over the NSS process. Many thought that the Agency should accept South Korea’s offer to cohost the IAEA’s next nuclear security conference and use that as an opportunity to boost the Agency’s role in nuclear security governance. Participants conceded, however, that continuing the NSS process under the IAEA umbrella would be an expansion of the Agency’s mandate, requiring requisite political support and increased funding.
In Southeast Asia, nuclear power programs are still in the development phase, so priority should be given to the management of radioactive source materials. All regional states possess such materials and have a vested interest in learning how to manage them in safe and secure manner, yet there is a great deal of fragmentation between and within states about how they can detect and respond to a radioactive accident or incident. One area of focus should be strengthening and expanding the Southeast Asia Regional Radiological Security Partnership.
Countries around the Asia-Pacific should help to improve radioactive source management in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by promoting education and outreach, supporting regulation and import and export controls, and expanding storage and disposal options. Where practically and economically feasible, they should also promote technologies that can replace or phase out the most vulnerable and threatening radioactive sources.
Two of the most prominent emerging nuclear problems in Southeast Asia are nuclear waste management and potential natural disasters that may trigger nuclear accidents. In both of these areas, regional organizations such as ASEAN have a role to play in ensuring a consistent, comprehensive nuclear governance regime. Without leadership from regional organizations, the institutionalization of nuclear governance will remain fragmented and piecemeal.
With regard to nuclear waste, ASEAN member-states should begin discussing a regional framework on spent fuel management that would devise regional strategies to manage and dispose of high-level radioactive waste. Some countries in the region considering nuclear power have unfortunately not yet prioritized nuclear waste management.
Because nuclear programs are still in development, there is a golden opportunity to establish effective nuclear safety, security, and safeguards cultures throughout Southeast Asia. There are, however, still a number of capacity-building shortfalls. Participants highlighted that the nuclear education plans in Indonesia and Malaysia are still evolving, and are thus still not comprehensive, and noted concern that the nuclear training courses in Vietnam are too theoretical.
In countries developing nuclear power, particular focus needs to be placed on preparing for possible nuclear accidents and incidents. These states should limit the population around nuclear power plants, have logistics available for potential evacuation, run drills ahead of time, ensure that public officials and the surrounding population understand nuclear risks and evacuation plans, and develop procedures for notifying the IAEA and neighboring countries if an accident or incident occurs.
There is continuing misperception about nuclear safety and security culture. To be effective, there needs to be an amalgamation of universal nuclear security standards and local practices and culture. In this regard, the nuclear security conversation should be expanded beyond nuclear experts to include local communities. One participant suggested that Southeast Asian states model the United Arab Emirates, which has conducted nuclear forums around the country to address concerns and answer questions about nuclear power.
During the discussion of a hypothetical scenario featuring a nuclear accident in Vietnam, it was emphasized that ASEAN–through a regional coordinating body–needs to be involved in responding to technological disasters triggered by natural disasters. Many participants recommended a more formal follow-on table-top exercise featuring experts and practitioners from across the region. In addition to raising awareness about the challenges involved in a nuclear accident or incident, this exercise would help tease out the gaps and limitations in the response of regional states.
ASEAN is already moving in the direction of regional disaster response with the development of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Center). This trend is promising and should be encouraged. As nuclear power expands in the region, the AHA Center should take on a greater role in nuclear safety by establishing a regional nuclear crisis center. This center should help states prepare for nuclear accidents and incidents by facilitating information exchange, coordinating regional response, conducting joint clean-up activities, and organizing workshops, training, and drills.
Nuclear security cooperation should also be enhanced through greater integration among the Asia-Pacific centers of excellence. Cooperation should focus on the joint development of standardized curricula, courses, and certification, the exchange of good practices, and the conduct of joint work in transportation security and emergency response and preparedness.