International community adopts Swiss idea for improving nuclear power plant safety

Diplomatic_conference_CNS_ENSI (4)The international community has committed to continuously improving the safety of nuclear power plants around the world. The Contracting Parties participating in the Diplomatic Conference to the Convention on Nuclear Safety CNS in Vienna reached a consensus on the Vienna Declaration on Nuclear Safety.  The Declaration includes safety principles derived from the original Swiss proposal to amend the Convention on Nuclear Safety CNS.

“The result is a success for nuclear safety worldwide and a success for Switzerland”, says Hans Wanner, Director of the Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate ENSI in summing up the result of the one-day conference. “It was obvious to all countries that it was not possible to return to business as usual after the accident in Fukushima.”

Essentially, the principles comprise the following elements:

  1. New nuclear power plants are to be designed, sited, and constructed, consistent with the objective of preventing accidents in the commissioning and operation and, should an accident occur, mitigating possible releases of radionuclides causing long-term off site contamination and avoiding early radioactive releases or radioactive releases large enough to require long-term protective measures and actions.
  1. Comprehensive and systematic safety assessments are to be carried out periodically and regularly for existing installations throughout their lifetime in order to identify safety improvements that are oriented to meet the above objective. Reasonably practicable or achievable safety improvements are to be implemented in a timely manner.

The new principles will be integrated in the CNS review process with immediate effect and reported on at the next Review Conference in 2017. The safety principles are similar to the requirements already established in the European Union EU and Switzerland. However, they are not legally binding.

Rooted in the Swiss amendment proposal for the CNS

The principles do not diverge significantly from the original amendment proposed by Switzerland. “They are in part even more specific with regard to early and large radioactive releases and also to the demand for systematic and periodic safety assessments of existing plants”, explains Hans Wanner.

The original Swiss proposal for amending the text of the convention pursued the same safety principles. Despite Switzerland’s intensive lobbying, however, it was not met with sufficient acceptance. The amendment was opposed by too many countries with nuclear power plants. “Resistance was largely politically motivated as many countries would have been unable to ratify the amendment to the convention for domestic reasons”, explains Hans Wanner. Many countries also feared the huge additional costs that a commitment to upgrading older existing plants may have brought with it. Some countries also argued that the original Swiss proposal would have led to ambiguities with regard to the actual technical implications of an obligation to upgrade.

Major nuclear power countries on board

Switzerland ultimately agreed not to insist on its own proposal in order to help the now concluded alternative to prevail. “Trying to force an amendment to the convention by way of a vote would have been counterproductive under these circumstances”, emphasizes Hans Wanner. Even if the vote had been a success, a large number of reactors around the world would have remained exempt from the tighter requirements without the consent of major nuclear power nations such as the USA, China and India. Countries without nuclear power plants and those where the requirements have already been anchored in legislation – such as Switzerland, France and the majority of other EU countries – would have consented to the Swiss proposal.

“Our goal of improving nuclear safety around the world would not have been achieved without the consent of the major nuclear power nations”, says Hans Wanner. The opponents could simply have decided not to ratify the more stringent declaration. The declaration recently adopted in Vienna is supported by all contracting parties. The contracting parties have confirmed that the safety objectives of the Swiss amendment proposal are of importance and that they should be a part of the CNS review process. Moreover, the  principles in the declaration can be implemented without delay and integrated in the convention’s work.