Nuclear safety push to be softened after US objections

Nuclear safety push to be softened after US objections
A bee flies to collect pollen on a mustard field in front of the cooling towers of the Temelin nuclear power plant near the South Bohemian city of Tyn nad Vltavou in this file photo taken on April 12, 2014.

VIENNA - The United States looks set to succeed in watering down a proposal for tougher legal standards aimed at boosting global nuclear safety, according to senior diplomats.

Diplomatic wrangling will come to a head at a 77-nation meeting in Vienna next month that threatens to expose divisions over required safety standards and the cost of meeting them, four years after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Switzerland has put forward a proposal to amend the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), arguing stricter standards could help avoid a repeat of Fukushima, where an earthquake and tsunami sparked triple nuclear meltdowns, forced more than 160,000 people to flee nearby towns and contaminated water, food and air.

"If the convention is already perfect, why did Fukushima happen?" said one senior diplomat involved in the matter.

But Russia and the United States have opposed such a change, the diplomats say.

A reform of the CNS would increase industry costs, as existing nuclear plants, especially older ones, would have to be refitted. The United Nations atomic watchdog says there are 439 nuclear power reactors currently in operation globally, with 69 under construction.

Mark Hibbs, proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said those in favor of the amendment argue their opponents are motivated by protecting the nuclear industry and electric utility companies.

Critics of the plan say the US industry has already spent billions of dollars on improving nuclear safety since Fukushima, Hibbs added.

COMPROMISE DRAFT

A compromise proposal obtained by Reuters earlier this month shows that CNS member countries are likely to issue a declaration or statement echoing the amendment proposal, which had broad European backing, rather than change the treaty.

"New nuclear power plants should be designed and constructed with the objective of preventing accidents," and minimizing off-site contamination in case of accidents, a document dated December 2014/January 2015 said, echoing the wording of the Swiss proposal, but categorized as a "statement".

"Reasonably achievable safety improvements identified at existing plants during... safety assessments should be oriented to these objectives and be implemented in a timely manner."

Such a declaration would mean less pressure on countries that fail to impose the tougher standards. Even an amended convention would only leave scope for punishment in the form of peer reviews.

Three senior Western diplomats confirmed that a change to the convention itself is very unlikely to get the green light at a diplomatic conference on the CNS in Vienna starting on Feb. 9, after the United States objected to such a step.

Another scenario could see the amendment simply voted down or shot down through procedural issues without even a joint statement - a "pessimistic" outlook, according to one diplomat, as it would show diplomatic divisions over nuclear safety.

"I think the United States government is afraid of any principle that would even suggest that current reactors need to be retrofitted to meet modern standards," said Edwin Lyman of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

"We have many plants (that face) hazards far greater than those they were originally designed to withstand decades ago... A declaration... would allow signatories to avoid even the obligation to discuss the matter in their reports."

A US official said that his country strongly supports the convention and wants it, and the diplomatic conference, to be successful, but did not comment on an amendment which may face political and legal opposition in the United States.

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