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U.N. to Host World Summit on Nuclear Safety

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, May 11 2011 (IPS) - The severity of the recent nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan has prompted U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon to convene a high-level meeting of world leaders on a politically-sensitive issue: nuclear security.

“We have to reevaluate nuclear risks and nuclear safety in response to the disaster in Japan,” he told reporters Wednesday.

The meeting, scheduled to take place during the upcoming session of the General Assembly on Sep. 22, is expected to focus on strengthening the global nuclear safety regime and ensuring maximum nuclear safety standards.

“This requires in-depth analysis on design, construction, training, quality assurance systems and stringent regulatory mechanisms,” the secretary-general said.

This exercise, he said, will also need a serious global debate on broader issues, including assessment of the costs, risks and benefits of nuclear energy and stronger connections between nuclear safety, nuclear security and nuclear non-proliferation.

The damage to the nuclear power plant in Japan, which followed a devastating earthquake and tsunami last March, resulted in radioactive contamination threatening lives and causing a mass exodus of residents in and around the neighbourhood.

The last major nuclear accident was the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, whose radioactive fallout caused a catastrophe in several European countries, with the most affected being Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia.

The United Nations has placed the Fukushima accident on par with Chernobyl.

Asked if the high-level meeting will bolster the global campaign for nuclear disarmament, John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS that nuclear disarmament will be at least implicitly on the agenda for the September meeting on nuclear safety.

He said the meeting will seek to prevent Fukushima-type nuclear reactor disasters, and focus on nuclear security and the prevention of non-state extremist acquisition of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

“That’s because many non-nuclear weapon states are resistant to the imposition of more onerous standards on safety and security while a two-tier system persists in which only a few countries have nuclear weapons and nationally-controlled nuclear fuel production facilities,” Burroughs said.

Of course, he said, all will support safety standards that really make sense. “No country wants to experience a Fukushima or Chernobyl- type catastrophe,” he said.

But enthusiasm for global regulation diminishes when sought within a highly discriminatory system, he pointed out.

The secretary-general, who has consistently maintained that “a world free of nuclear weapons is one of my top priorities,” said he has called for a U.N. system-wide study on the implications of the accident at Fukushima.

The study will also look at how the international community can better deal with the emerging nexus between natural disasters and nuclear safety.

He said the September meeting will build on next month’s ministerial conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna that will address measures needed to enhance nuclear safety in the wake of Fukushima.

While supporting the IAEA initiative, he said, the high-level meeting in September will also provide a bridge to the second Nuclear Security Summit next year in Seoul.

He also pointed out that 2011 marks the 15th year of the Moscow Declaration on Nuclear Safety and Security. The Moscow summit took place in April 1996, on the tenth anniversary of Chernobyl.

“Twenty-five years after Chernobyl and in the aftermath of Fukushima, I believe it is high time to take a hard look at the issue of strengthening nuclear safety and security,” Ban told reporters Wednesday.

Asked about the relationship between nuclear security and nuclear disarmament, M.V. Ramana, an associate research scholar with the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, told IPS, “I do not think that an emphasis on nuclear security alone – i.e., just ensuring that fissile material isn’t stolen – will accelerate nuclear disarmament.”

He said it is the elimination of nuclear weapons on a non- discriminatory universal basis that is needed.

“However, that process will likely be set back by any large scale expansion of nuclear power,” said Ramana, author of several books, including “Prisoner of the Nuclear Dream” and “Bombing Bombay? Effects of Nuclear Weapons and a Case Study of a Hypothetical Explosion”.

“I personally think that safety and security are quite different,” Ramana said. Both are important, but they have to be engaged with separately.

Further, in the context of nuclear safety, “I think it is very important to involve people who are independent of nuclear establishments around the world in the process, in addition to organisations like the IAEA.”

Ban said he has been telling world leaders that while the responsibility for nuclear safety rests with individual governments, they should revisit their nuclear safety standards. “All this strengthening of nuclear standards should be coordinated and done at the national and international level,” he said.

He also highlighted the nexus between security and safety.

“We have to be very careful, very vigilant, against any possibility that nuclear materials or nuclear technology could be slipped into the hands of the wrong person, wrong country or wrong organisation, namely terrorist groups, or any country whose regime would be not be committed to international peace and security,” Ban said.

“That is why I am raising this issue very seriously,” he declared.

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