July 14, 2024

G-8 Energy Ministers Pledge Support for Stricter Nuclear Safety Tests

PARIS — International energy ministers and officials of nuclear agencies pledged support Tuesday for a global push to improve safety tests at nuclear power plants.

The pledge emerged from a meeting in Paris that also highlighted divergent national approaches to the sector following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

The meeting, described as an “informal seminar,” was suggested by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France at a Group of 8 leaders’ meeting last month. Mr. Sarkozy has proposed drafting new global standards for nuclear security and updating international conventions in the wake of the accident that struck the reactors in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami March 11.

“It quickly become apparent that we need to draw conclusions from the accident and improve and lift our standards and cooperation on nuclear safety,” said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the French ecology minister, who led the meeting.

Representatives attended from around 30 countries drawn from the G-8 and members of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to a statement released afterward, there was a consensus that countries with nuclear facilities should carry out stress tests and periodic safety reviews and that the role and missions of the International Atomic Energy Agency should be bolstered.

Attendees also discussed how to develop international nuclear intervention teams and possible modifications to existing international conventions, including those concerning liability.

The talks will continue among ministers at an I.A.E.A. meeting in Vienna on June 20-24, a gathering expected to propose more concrete steps, possibly including mandatory international safety regulations going beyond the agency’s existing recommendations.

Among those represented Tuesday were leading nuclear energy producers like France, which has 58 reactors providing around 80 percent of its electricity. Other attendees were Germany and Switzerland, which are abandoning their programs, and India, which is turning to the sector to sate its growing energy needs.

“There was no debate on whether to abandon nuclear or to start a program,” Ms. Kosciusko-Morizet said. “There was a general, uncontested agreement from everyone at the meeting that nuclear safety must come first — whether it’s a question of more or less nuclear power. And that depends on international cooperation.”

One European country wavering on the question is Italy, where the Constitutional Court ruled Tuesday that a referendum on restarting nuclear power projects could proceed Sunday, the ANSA news agency reported. The Italian public voted to reject nuclear energy after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

The Swiss government decided in May to phase out nuclear energy by 2034. “We think that it’s firstly very important that all states with nuclear plants put in place the existing nuclear safety requirements,” the Swiss federal energy minister, Doris Leuthard, said. “Then we think peer reviews are very helpful.”

“We would love, from the Swiss government, that these peer reviews are not only on a voluntary basis, that people would accept it would be mandatory,” she said. “Why don’t we give transparency to our populations.”

Ursula Heinen-Esser, a state secretary at the Federal Environment Ministry of Germany, another country that is turning away from nuclear power, said the immediate priority should be stress tests. She added that Berlin welcomed the G-8’s call for those countries that have not started such tests to carry them out.

Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, said his country had little choice but to turn to nuclear power, given that its energy demand is growing 10 percent or more a year. “This power demand is so genuine,” he said, “the only alternative is that we burn coal.” He said that India currently contributed 5 percent of global carbon emissions, but that would rise to 50 percent if it met its energy needs from coal. New Delhi, he added, was investing in solar energy, “but it cannot sustain a metropolis or a heavy industry.”

Milan Hovorka, the Czech Republic’s deputy minister for industry and trade, said the meeting highlighted “some minor differences here and there regarding the measures to be taken and sequences,” but he added, “I belive that we are united and that we are determined to proceed with a view to bringing the issue of nuclear safety to the highest possible level.”

Hideichi Okada, Japan’s deputy minister for international affairs at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said Tokyo had been “as transparent as possible” in releasing data on radiation since the accident. “As soon as we get the information, we disseminate.”

On Monday, the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said that radioactive emissions from the Fukushima plant might have been more than twice as large as a previous estimate.

Luis E. Echávarri, director general of the Nuclear Energy Agency at the O.E.C.D., said the Fukushima accident was not a result of bad design or operation but had “shown the weaknesses of nuclear power plants” in facing unforeseen external events like natural disasters.

“We have realized still we can improve significantly nuclear designs and this is what is being done,” he said.

On Wednesday, the heads of the nuclear regulatory agencies “will continue the discussion to join the political view with the technical and regulatory view,” Mr. Echávarri said, seeking to coordinate safety reviews under way and “draw lessons to apply to all power plants.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/08/business/global/08nuke.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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