The month of March 2012 marked two major developments in the realm of nuclear safety and nuclear security with the one-year anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi and the second Nuclear Security Summit held in Seoul. Despite the close proximity of these events, their implications could not be more far ranging and distinct.

In the ninth installment of the Arms Control Seminar Series, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Yang Fuqiang and Carnegie's Mark Hibbs, discussed global nuclear safety trends. In the second panel, Li Hong, Secretary General of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, and Hibbs explored the fate of nuclear security. Carnegie-Tsinghua’s Resident Scholars Lora Saalman and Wang Tao moderated these two panels.

Nuclear Safety Versus Nuclear Security

A U.S. and Chinese participant began the session by explaining that nuclear safety and nuclear security are often confused in Chinese vernacular, in large part because the same term “he anquan” is frequently used for both concepts. However, in recent years there has been a concerted effort to differentiate between these two fields. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines nuclear safety as “the achievement of proper operating conditions, prevention of accidents and mitigation of accident consequences, resulting in protection of workers, the public and the environment from undue radiation hazards.” It defines nuclear security as “the prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities.”

Strengthening Nuclear Safety

In the wake of Fukushima, there has been a great deal of investigation into whether or not the design basis for the plants was miscalculated and into the extent of human error in contributing to the disaster. Answers to these questions will be decisive in attempts to limit the negative impact of the accident on nuclear programs worldwide, argued one U.S. participant.

  • United States: Although U.S. experts have argued that the United States would have done a better job had there been a Fukushima-style crisis at a U.S. power plant, Japanese nuclear energy-related skills and technology are better than that of the United States, argued one Chinese participant. Therefore, in his view, U.S. assertions of nuclear emergency preparedness are primarily based on its independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He questioned whether or not China should establish such an authority. A Chinese expert responded by emphasizing that China’s regulatory authority is in full compliance with IAEA requirements.
  • China: One Chinese participant explained that China’s pursuit of nuclear energy has slowed after Fukushima, but it has not stopped. While safety remains the highest priority, this expert noted that the Chinese system remains disjointed and divided into ministries. He recommended the formation of a single independent Nuclear Safety Bureau, not under the State Council. Another Chinese participant emphasized that China’s emergency response is unparalleled, particularly when dealing with natural disasters. China has its own emergency response and information dissemination mechanism under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), as well as a regulatory board under the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), explained one Chinese expert.
  • Germany: A U.S. expert recounted how Germany’s once pro-nuclear government has been impacted by the Fukushima incident, overturning the life extensions of and phasing out the country’s 17 nuclear reactors. It remains to be seen how Germany will replace fifty percent of the base load supply, when faced with such closures. Given the “virtual coalition” of anti-nuclear opposition and conservative leadership on energy issues, this participant noted that it is difficult to enter dissenting views into the decision-making process. One of the Chinese experts stated that China believes that Germany will eventually resume their nuclear energy program.
  • Entrants: Many of the countries that are new entrants or aspirants to nuclear power programs have grown more hesitant following Fukushima, said one U.S. participant. Kuwait is seeing a long-term parliamentary opposition to nuclear power; in post-Qaddafi Libya nuclear energy is not a priority; in Thailand and Malaysia, nuclear power has received only tepid political support; and in countries like Vietnam, Turkey, and Jordan, financial and infrastructure shortfalls threaten to quash nuclear energy goals. Even countries with longer nuclear energy track records like South Korea and India have begun to experience setbacks. One of the Chinese experts argued that in exporting abroad, developed countries should bear the most responsibility and make guarantees to recipient countries.
  • Suppliers: One of the U.S. participants asked how powers like China, who are seeking to expand their nuclear exports, would be impacted if more countries turned away from supply and consumption of nuclear energy. A U.S. expert responded that a number of nuclear exporters are questioning the degree to which they should import technology and develop it domestically. Within the next 5-10 years, China is likely to not only be importing nuclear plants from France, but also to be exporting them globally. China will find itself competing with countries that helped it to develop nuclear technologies and will face many of the same problems in matching aspirations with financial limitations and demands of importing countries, another participant commented.

Realizing Nuclear Security

The Nuclear Security Summit, held in 2010 and 2012, sought to establish the international nuclear security architecture necessary to “lockdown” nuclear materials, through measures like promoting measures to secure high-risk nuclear materials such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium (Pu), to enhance the protection of nuclear facilities, and to prevent the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, explained one U.S. participant. However, he noted that while U.S. President Obama’s 2009 pledge to secure global nuclear materials in four years was laudable, these two summits have shown the difficulty of translating this vision into a reality.

  • Summit Visions: Several Chinese experts contended that in spite of lofty goals set at the Washington summit, the Seoul summit was marked early on by distracting theatrics, such as North Korea’s announcement of plans to conduct a rocket launch and a U.S. presidential visit to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. He maintained that while leaders are reaching greater consensus on nuclear security, the momentum of such efforts is more questionable. One Chinese participant noted that the Seoul meeting concentrated on two years of achievements, but needed to set a framework to address issues like the nuclear fuel cycle, information and cyber security, reducing HEU stockpiles, enforcement, and cooperation.
  • Stockpiles and Conversion: In the attempt to secure and reduce HEU and Pu inventories, one of the U.S. participants pointed out that all but 20 megatons (MT) of the world’s total 1,440 MT of HEU are in countries with nuclear weapons and 220 MT of the world’s 250 MT weapons grade Pu remains in the United States and Russia. A Chinese participant added that the two countries continue to use HEU in their nuclear submarine programs. Moreover, global civil plutonium stockpiles have increased from 150 to 250 MT in the last 15 years, with no consensus on reducing such inventories. A U.S. participant pointed out that while 77 reactors have been converted to using low-enriched uranium, Russia and China continue their production of new HEU reactors. One of the Chinese participants responded that China has a successful conversion program to convert reactors from HEU to LEU and that this could be a source of future cooperation and exchange.
  • Political Will: A U.S. expert explained that there are no legally binding multilateral treaties on nuclear security. So while the global nuclear industry may be subject to basic international laws and obligations, there persist incremental approaches, piecemeal guidelines, and limited outreach. A Chinese participant maintained that if a Republican administration enters office, nuclear security would remain ad hoc. A U.S. expert and Chinese expert noted that while Republicans and Democrats differ on approach, both place a priority on nuclear security. The difference is in how this agenda addresses the concerns of the developing world, which has few resources to engage in nuclear security and little concern over securing HEU or Pu stockpiles. By adding radiological materials to the agenda, the two suggested that developing world participation could be strengthened. A Chinese expert added that developing countries remained far more concerned with nuclear safety than nuclear security.
  • Global Realities: A U.S. expert argued that the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit would likely transition to a focus on working-level and expert interaction. One of the U.S. participants asked if this would adversely impact the strengthening of political will or treaty formation, given the absence of political leadership. A U.S. expert responded that political will consists of more than leaders. Unlike nuclear proliferation and nuclear safety, there has not been a dramatic nuclear terrorist attack so far, leading many to believe that it is not a true threat. Several Chinese participants asked how to characterize Israeli attacks against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities, as well as the Stuxnet virus’ alleged penetration of Iranian nuclear cyberspace, suggesting that these constitute game-changing moments in nuclear security. Another Chinese expert added that without consensus on what constitutes affronts to nuclear security, it will be difficult to create an international model and foster global governance.

Discussants: Zhu Xuhui, Zhang Tuosheng, Gu Zhongmao, Zou Yunhua, Gu Guoliang, Zhai Dequan, Han Hua, Liu Zun, Wang Yi, Hu Yumin, Fu Xiao, Li Bin, Fan Jishe, Guo Xiaobing, Yang Danzhi, Ren Jingjing, Mao Jikang, Zhong Zhong