The Nuclear Paradox

In June 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) hosted a conference on nuclear safety at its headquarters in Vienna. Present were ministers, radiation protection experts, representatives of national nuclear energy agencies and the nuclear industry, all anxious that the Fukushima disaster would compromise the nuclear renaissance of the 2000s.
Yukiya Amano, the Japanese diplomat elected director general in 2009, told delegates from the 153 member states of “a new era” in which nuclear power plant safety standards would be strengthened and globally standardised. Since the beginning of the month, the IAEA had been publishing soothing communiqués on the situation at Fukushima, based on information from the Tokyo Electric Power Company and from Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. This is the paradox of the IAEA: It is responsible both for promoting and for policing nuclear energy.
Article 2 of its statute says: “The agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.” Membership of the board of governors is based on how advanced member states are in nuclear energy technology. The agency had its origins in US president Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” address to the UN General Assembly in 1953, which expressed the belief that “this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind.”
Atoms for Peace, which became the agency’s motto, was an attempt to mask the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It assumed that the military and civil applications of nuclear energy were distinct. Yet, Joseph Rotblat, the only physicist to have withdrawn from the Manhattan Project (the research programme that led to the first nuclear bomb) before the destruction of Hiroshima in August 1945, had warned that: “The intrinsic link between peaceful and the military aspects of nuclear energy -- the fact that it is impossible to generate electricity in a uranium-based reactor without at the same time producing a nuclear weapon material, plutonium -- means that eventually either civilization will be destroyed in a nuclear war or nuclear energy based on fission will have to be abandoned.”
The IAEA was established in 1957. Engineers dreamed of a source of electricity so abundant that it would be “too cheap to meter.” The utopian ideals of the time led to the agency being given responsibility for ensuring that every country would benefit from what was seen as a virtuous form of energy, while supervising global disarmament. The IAEA’s total budget for 2012 is €333m ($424m), equal to that of Vienna’s municipal police force. Just 250 of its 2,200 staff are inspectors, supervision being only one of its activities. Within this budget and manpower, it is responsible for checking the condition of the 429 nuclear reactors in operation in 31 countries, and 145 shut-down reactors, watching over 42.2m cubic metres of radioactive waste, including 388,000 cubic metres of high-level waste stored near to power plants and at processing facilities, and preventing the misappropriation of nuclear materials.
The IAEA is supposed to establish international standards on nuclear safety -- on protecting humans from radiological risk, preventing accidents, preparing emergency action plans. But because the IAEA’s statute makes it dependent on its member states, the agency often has to settle for the lowest common denominator. Advocates of nuclear power may talk of the need for transparency and disclosure, but journalists are asked to leave the room during debates. The IAEA constantly emphasises that the regulators in charge of monitoring nuclear power plant safety are independent, but appears to find it quite normal that the watchers and those they watch over should have close links. According to Daniel Poneman, US deputy secretary of energy, “Nuclear energy companies and the broader international nuclear energy industry will continue to play a central role both in preventing and responding to any accident.”
No other UN agency supports the development of a branch of industry on which it depends to so great an extent. And concerns over the economic viability of nuclear power often take precedence over the formulation of standards, which are drawn up in accordance with perceived business opportunities. France has important contacts on the board: The head of the IAEA’s department of nuclear safety and security is Denis Flory, who succeeded Philippe Jamet when the latter became commissioner of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN); the head of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (Wano), which is an NGO accredited to the IAEA, is Laurent Stricker, formerly of Electricité de France (EDF); and the chairman of the IAEA commission on safety standards is André-Claude Lacoste, a former chairman of the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association (Wenra) who was also chairman of the ASN until last November.
Eisaku Sato, the former governor of Fukushima Prefecture, is shocked that in Japan “the people in charge of promoting nuclear power, and the people responsible for monitoring it, belong to the same ministry. That’s like police and thieves working together.” This kind of arrangement may be why, in June, Gregory Jaczko, then director of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, announced at the IAEA’s ministerial conference that audits of the 104 reactors in the United States had not found it necessary to suspend the operation of a single facility. Even the Diablo Canyon power station in California, built on a major seismic fault line, scored high marks. It may also be why, in Europe, the stress testing of nuclear power stations is entrusted to national authorities, represented by Wenra, which has ties to the nuclear power industry, rather than to an independent panel of European experts. Safety standards are made to measure, thanks to a self-certification process that has the IAEA’s blessing. From Chernobyl to Fukushima, the aim is to link disasters to the specific conditions in the country where they occur, and to ignore the structural problems they reveal -- Chernobyl could only have occurred in the Soviet Bloc, and Fukushima was unfortunate in being in the path of a tsunami.
The IAEA also has ties to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a club of “friends of nuclear power,” the 46 countries that are the main providers of fissile material. This informal body, founded in 1974, aims to reduce proliferation by laying down the conditions under which countries may export nuclear materials and equipment. In 2008 the NSG allowed an exception by authorising India to import nuclear technology under an agreement with the United States, although India is not a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and does not fully submit to the IAEA’s safeguards system. Mohamed El Baradei, director general of the IAEA at the time and Nobel peace prizewinner, approved the initiative: “I viewed the agreement as a win-win situation, good for development and good for arms control. It would provide India with access to Western nuclear energy technology and safety insights -- an important consideration given India’s ambitious indigenous nuclear energy program. Also, although the deal would not bring India into the NPT, it would draw the country closer to the nuclear non-proliferation regime through acceptance of IAEA safeguards of its civilian facilities and a commitment to adhere to the export guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.” The agreement proved highly lucrative for the industry, including Areva (main developer of the European Pressurised Reactor), Toshiba and General Electric.
Article 4 of the NPT proclaims the “inalienable right” of peoples to “develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” As champion of the civilian applications of nuclear power, the IAEA is in an ambiguous position, being both responsible for policing global proliferation and an unintentional accomplice in that very proliferation. According to the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge laboratory, any country with civil nuclear reactors could reprocess plutonium in sufficient quantities to manufacture a nuclear weapon outside IAEA supervision.
On 18 September 2011, Iran commissioned its first civil nuclear facility at Bushehr. Construction began in 1975 but was interrupted by the war with Iraq (1980-88). The Russian federal agency Rosatom recommenced the work and a bilateral agreement between the countries was signed under the aegis of the IAEA. According to a cable from the US embassy in Vienna published by WikiLeaks (dated 9 July 2009 and signed by Geoffrey Pyatt, then US representative at the IAEA), the agency’s current director general, Yukiya Amano, sees himself as closer to the United States and to Israel than his predecessor Mohamed El Baradei (who is Egyptian), whom he regards as an “intermediary” between Iran and the IAEA, while he considers himself to be “impartial.” Amano hopes that the United States will give the IAEA greater financial support. In the past few months, the IAEA has increased communication over possible Iranian operations. On 22 February 2012 Amano expressed “disappointment” at Iran’s refusal to grant IAEA inspectors access to its Parshin site. This contributed to the escalation of the US media campaign against the Iranian regime.
Under the watchful eye of the IAEA’s press relations director, who transcribed the interview carefully, I talked to an expert from the Department of Safeguards, who explained, “The growing volume of data we have to analyse means that identifying reliable information is a major challenge.” In 2010, the department evaluated more than 17,000 reports and declarations from member states, confirmed around 440,000 nuclear material transactions, analysed hundreds of samples and satellite images and published 3,000 articles on safeguard-related activities.
When physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan passed information on centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment to Pakistan in 1974, he revealed a worldwide chain of complicity that has allowed Libya, Iran and North Korea to obtain centrifuges. The IAEA databank on illicit trade in nuclear materials lists over 650 trafficking incidents between 1993 and 2004. The growing threat from global proliferation of fissile material has not led to any expansion of the agency’s mandate, even though it has acquired new competencies and resources, such as customs inspectors. It is asking for money to fund the monitoring and tracing of international trade in fissile materials. But national sovereignty issues are an obstacle to inspectors in the field. Only the UN Security Council can expand the IAEA’s mandate -- which it did temporarily for the inspections in Iran.
The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), established in 1955, has its offices within the IAEA’s Vienna complex. Chairman Wolfgang Weiss explained how the health risks of exposure to radiation are assessed. Exposure is measured in sieverts (Sv), named after Swedish physicist Rolf Sievert. In France, the allowable limit for nuclear power workers and radiologists is 20 millisieverts per year (mSv/year), but can be raised to 100mSv/year in an emergency. For the general public, the limit is 1mSv/year. According to Weiss, at less than 200mSv/year there is no significant risk: “We believe there is a stepless linear relationship between risk and dose. A dose of 1,000mSv/year presents a 10% risk of cancer. A dose of 100mSv/an presents only a 1% risk. So only one of the 100 workers at the Fukushima power station exposed to 100mSv/year will develop cancer.” UNSCEAR is trying to play down the long-term risk presented by such “low” doses. In its 2008 report on the consequences of Chernobyl, the committee calculated that the accident had led to 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer, of which 15 were fatal. According to Weiss, mortality from cancer is no higher in the area near Chernobyl than it would be if no nuclear accident had occurred. UNSCEAR claims that only 28 of the 530,000 “liquidators” at Chernobyl died from acute radiation poisoning.
UNSCEAR employs just four staff to monitor the long-term effects of radiation exposure and conduct epidemiological studies, with the help of outside experts. This unpublicised committee was originally set up to monitor the health of victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. “The harmfulness of a millisievert was calculated on the basis of this extreme exposure, transposed into the chronic exposure scenario. The risk categories used for radioprotection purposes are not really compatible with nuclear power station accidents, where the exposure is prolonged,” says Yves Marignac, director of WISE-Paris, the independent World Information Service on Energy. According to Marignac, radiation protection experts have been underestimating the effects of chronic radiation exposure for 50 years. “The international community should have gone into this, but it has turned a blind eye since its policies are largely predetermined. It is doing everything it can to avoid having to change the paradigm on which the risks of chronic exposure are assessed. But public health is deteriorating in all contaminated areas. What part has radiation played in this deterioration? The scientific community must bear the responsibility for having failed to equip itself with the means of finding out.” UNSCEAR is conducting a study on the current and future effects of radiation in the Fukushima area. But local people will have to wait until the report is delivered in May 2013 to know what figure they should trust as being the safe dose and to get an overall picture of the amount of radiation in their food.
Radioprotection, a discipline of vital importance to victims of nuclear accidents and wars, is based on scientific findings watered down by committees with close links to the nuclear power industry and official evaluation bodies. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), founded in 1928 to establish standards, is today considered the authority on allowable doses. Its members are drawn from scientific institutions, official bodies and the nuclear power industry. They include representatives of Rosatom, France’s Commission on Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies (CEA) and EDF. The radioprotection standards adopted by the Japanese authorities, based on those drawn up by the ICRP, turn out to be less stringent than those applied in the Soviet Union in 1986.
The Belrad Institute in Minsk has noted that Belarusian children are suffering from cardiovascular ailments because they have eaten food contaminated at a level of 20 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg). Named after the French physicist Henri Becquerel, this unit expresses the number of spontaneous nuclear transitions per second in a radioactive material. In Japan, the allowable contamination limit before the accident was around 1Bq/kg. It was raised to 500Bq/kg after the accident, then reduced to 100Bq/kg on 1 April 2012. Thanks to this high threshold, most rice and vegetables were deemed from the start not to be contaminated, and are still on the market.
These measures have the approval of international bodies such as the IAEA and the World Health Organization, which are linked by an agreement dating back to 1959. According to the collective Independent WHO, this agreement explains why the WHO played down the consequences of Chernobyl and later of Fukushima, and seems paralysed in the face of the present crisis. In 25 years, “no social or medical programme worthy of the name has been put in place in the contaminated areas around Chernobyl” and “nuclear countries have conducted few epidemiological studies if any.” Restricted by official doctrine, information on the risks of nuclear power is always difficult to interpret. And those responsible for nuclear disasters go unpunished. Agnès Sinaï is a journalist and co-founder of the Momentum Institute. Translated by Charles Goulden. Copyright © 2013 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global