Enhancing Nuclear Safety-Security Culture in East Asia

Since 2013, the RSIS’ Centre for NonTraditional Security Studies has been organising policy roundtables on postFukushima nuclear energy governance in East Asia, as part of the annual Singapore International Energy Week (SIEW). The previous RSIS SIEW roundtables have highlighted that the biggest risk associated with nuclear power comes not from the nuclear technology itself but the lack of a safety-security culture – the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours of those involved in the operation and regulation of nuclear facilities and utilisation of radioactive materials. In this regard, the RSIS’ SIEW roundtable on October 27, 2017 focuses on developing nuclear safety-security culture in East Asia.

An important lesson from the Fukushima accident is the need to have broader perspectives on (and preparedness for) ‘unthinkable’ events and unforeseen circumstances – basically avoiding complacency. Human errors such as complacency and lack of critical thinking have been identified as key contributors to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Yet, post-Fukushima resolutions in the nuclear industry have focused only on technological improvements, leaving out nuclear safety culture and security culture, which still need to be deepened in East Asia, including in ASEAN.

Human Errors Compromising Safety-Security Culture

In both China and Japan, a lack of a safety-security culture has served as an obstacle to strengthening safety and security in nuclear facilities.

In October 2016, China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration made public 16 safety failures that occurred in China’s nuclear plants during the year, all involving breaches of operational guidelines and mistakes made by power plant staff members.

Meanwhile, the crucial critical mindset of the regulatory staff was still found to be lacking in Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency (NRA), according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) 2016 Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) Report. The IAEA recommends that the training for inspectors should take a holistic approach and include the development of critical thinking.

Deepening Regional Cooperation on Safety-Security Culture

Notwithstanding these challenges, a few steps have already been taken by China and Japan to support ASEAN in building capabilities on nuclear energy and promoting their technology.

China has embarked on rapid nuclear power development with 37 nuclear power reactors in operation, with 20 under construction. With more about to start construction, China has also been promoting its nuclear technology overseas, including in Southeast Asia. For instance, China General Nuclear Power Corp (CGN) has already set up business offices in Southeast Asia. Since 2015, CGN has been co-organising, together with ASEAN Centre for Energy, the ASEAN-China CapacityBuilding on Nuclear Energy Workshop.

Like China, Japan has also been promoting its nuclear reactor technology. Japan’s centres of excellence such as Japan Atomic Energy Agency and Japan Atomic Energy Commission have been providing technical training assistance to ASEAN Member-States in enhancing nuclear regulation, safety, security and emergency preparedness.

To make the ASEAN’s capacitybuilding cooperation with China and Japan more comprehensive, it is important to complement technical training on nuclear energy with human resource development, especially in developing a nuclear safety-security culture. While there are no nuclear power plants yet in Southeast Asia, radioactive materials are already being widely used in industrial factories, research reactors, universities and hospitals in the region.

It is therefore crucial to develop a safety-security culture in the joint activities, technical workshops, and meetings of the ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM) and the ASEAN Nuclear Energy Cooperation-Subsector Network (NECSSN). With the transboundary risks of nuclear accidents or the possibility of hijacking radioactive materials ever present, it is glaringly urgent that ASEAN MemberStates apply the lessons from Northeast Asia by collectively building the necessary skills and mindsets that will discourage complacency and promote critical thinking in using nuclear energy.