G20 discuss nuclear safety following Fukushima

10 Jun

This week has seen Group of 20 nations convene in Paris to discuss nuclear safety in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, stated that safety, not funding, should be the main concern of the nuclear industry and it was agreed that the incident was a failure of the global nuclear security system. European national atomic agencies have been called to conduct stress tests to ensure facilities can resist accidents or emergencies. And all of this happened against a backdrop of Germany announcing in May that it will close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022, with Switzerland following suit.

Sarkozy has also recently been advocating international nuclear safety standards to replace the current Convention on Nuclear Safety which requires the 72 countries that have atomic energy plants to submit reports of the other contracting parties. This is not binding, however, and the French President seems to be suggesting that non-binding standards are analogous to no having standards at all.

Director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Yukiya Amano has called for revised international emergency response procedures, as the current set were drawn up in the seven months following the Chernobyl disaster and do not reflect the circumstances of the 21st century.

Nuclear safety has rightly been on the top of the international political agenda in the wake the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But, there seems to be one problem with nuclear power that is conspicuous by its absence in current discussions. And it is a problem inherent with nuclear power; it will not go away, but people seem unwilling to address it. That is: what on earth do we do with nuclear waste? We – quite rightly – can have every safeguard conceivable in managing hazards in nuclear facilities, but we also need appropriate and long-term plans for managing the waste from nuclear fission. Some nuclear waste takes hundreds of thousands of years to decay into stable isotopes and will remain hazardous to humans and the environment until it does so.

The US has designated the Yucca Mountains as a Nuclear Waste Repository for storing spent fuel, but is sticking it in a huge hole in the ground really a solution? I’m not sure it is. Until the risks associated with spent fuel can be effectively managed, can nuclear power really be considered as an option to the world’s growing demand for power? As a fundamental aspect in the safety of nuclear power, I hope it will be brought up at the IAEA conference on nuclear safety in Vienna later on in June.

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