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Issues & Insights Vol. 16 – No. 19 – Nuclear Governance in Asia after the Nuclear Security Summit Process

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process was successful in raising awareness and in urging countries to move forward on issues such as the adoption of relevant treaties on nuclear security and improving accountability of fissile material. The entry into force of the amendment of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM), acceptance of the Joint Statement on Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation (INFCIRC 869) by several states, and the removal of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from several countries were important results of the process.
Despite these achievements, the summit process failed to fully address important issues, including plutonium accumulation, military fissile materials, sabotage, and cyber security. The final NSS also failed to outline a clear post-summit strategy, leaving the future of nuclear security governance uncertain. Some participants attributed this failure to the lack of participation of countries like Russia at the 2016 summit. Other participants noted that Russia’s absence reflected differences in views on the NSS agenda and on how to move forward but that, nonetheless, Moscow has economically contributed to the nuclear security fund and has continued to cooperate with the United States on nuclear security issues.
There were different views regarding the value of the summit process for a nuclear security agenda. While some believed it focused attention on specific topics such as removal of fissile material and enhanced physical security at nuclear facilities, others believed that a broader agenda that included nuclear safety would be preferable as it would give countries more incentives to actively participate and would contribute to maintaining momentum from the NSS process.
There was general consensus that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) through its efforts to establish nuclear security guidelines has become an important actor in promoting nuclear security. It was also argued that the CPPNM review process could be used as a forum for nuclear security governance. Sustained involvement by heads of states is crucial and the “gift basket” approach is an efficient way to proceed. It was suggested that countries submit national reports on their progress in enhancing nuclear security.
The future of nuclear security governance is of particular concern for Asia. Mechanisms that could improve governance include the establishment of a global nuclear security system and a “connect framework” to enhance cooperation and information sharing among countries. The Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) was cited as a model. Several participants believed that the Centers of Excellence (COE) in China, Japan, and South Korea should combine efforts to improve regional nuclear security. The IAEA could help coordinate a division of labor between COEs.
The ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM) provides an official framework to facilitate cooperation among the nuclear regulatory bodies of ASEAN member states to promote nuclear safety, security, and safeguards. It serves as the key point of contact with the IAEA to promote cooperation in these areas, including capacity building for the benefit of all member states. While ASEANTOM has been designated as a sectoral body under the ASEAN Political-Security Community, it does not have a dedicated secretariat, which would provide continuity and enhance regulatory cooperation since the current organizational structure requires the ASEANTOM chair to rotate annually in conjunction with the rotation of the ASEAN chair. It was suggested that links between the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) be established to share information and explore their inclusion in emergency exercises. Stronger collaboration between ASEANTOM and the Asia-Pacific Safeguards Network (APSN) was also suggested.
Universal adoption of the relevant liability conventions is fundamental to a strong nuclear safety regime in Asia. Given Southeast Asia’s fast-growing interest in nuclear energy, nuclear safety is an area of increasing concern. Several participants emphasized the need for training courses on nuclear technology to ensure adequate human resources. A participant backed South Korean President Park’s proposal to create a mutual consulting body for China, Japan, and South Korea as a way to strengthen nuclear safety. Also recommended was the creation of a nuclear safety inspection regime for Asian nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power generation is challenged by the public perception of nuclear and radioactive waste. To deal with public reaction to uncertainty, participants suggested the adoption of short-term and long-term communication strategies to educate the public on the threats and risks associated with waste management. Nongovernmental organizations’ involvement in the process was considered crucial.
Public awareness and education are also critical in dealing with nuclear incidents and accidents. Enhanced training courses along with drills and exercises with constantly-changing scenarios would help develop adaptability skills, which are decisive in the event of a nuclear incident/accident. Such exercises should be organized not only for nuclear operators, but also for other stakeholders, including first responders such as medical personnel, rescuers, police, and civilians.
Among the technical tools suggested for preventing and preparing for nuclear incidents/accidents, participants emphasized the adoption of radiological monitoring systems, as they facilitate quick responses and quick impact assessments. It was suggested that a working group within the IAEA be established where stakeholders could exchange knowledge and information on the use of these tools.
Cyber threats are another emerging nuclear concern. Participants noted that cyber-attacks at nuclear facilities are becoming a very real possibility. Part of the problem derives from obsolete systems and the lack of capacity in dealing with such attacks. Further studies on the issue were encouraged.