International treaties governing nuclear security serve as frameworks based on shared experience, but they are not a substitute for practical and ongoing cooperation. This was one of the messages from delegates at NP1 – The Nuclear Power Conference Israel – Threats, Challenges, Opportunities.
The 10 November event took place amid growing concern about Iran’s move away from its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) and signals from president-elect Joe Biden that the USA will re-enter the agreement. A recording of the online conference, which had 30 speakers and more than 1000 registered participants, was uploaded to YouTube this week.
Israel operates a research reactor at the Soreq Nuclear Research Centre, near Tel Aviv, under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. It is one of three significant countries that have never been part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so any supply of nuclear equipment or fuel from outside the country would be severely constrained. Unlike India and Pakistan, Israel has no civil nuclear power programme. A number of its neighbours, however, do have nuclear power plants in operation, under construction or planned. They include Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.
Ori Nissim Levy, from Operational Nuclear Defense Model and the chairman of the conference, unveiled an initiative to rank all countries in terms of their preparedness for a radiological emergency. N&R-SR1 – ‘nuclear and radiological index standard of readiness’ – was created by World Nuclear Forum-193 (WNF-193), an international group of scientists and experts in nuclear energy and radiology.
The ranking will be sent to the governments of all 193 countries in the next few months and be published in the spring of next year. Parameters to calculate the index include, for example, how accessible information is to the public, how many faculties there are in the country for nuclear and radiology studies, and how many exercises are performed each year specifically to examine “rehabilitation”, he said.
The ranking is intended for all parties responsible for the security of the national population, from politicians to the emergency services, and from military organisations to medical facilities. It is a complement to the IAEA’s guidance on Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency but includes all countries and not only IAEA Member States.
Established in 2017, WNF-193 is open to more researchers joining and sharing their experience from around the world, he said.
Luigi de Dominicis, from the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, described European Union collaboration in nuclear security.
De Dominicis is the coordinator of the INCLUDING project, which is bringing together infrastructure, equipment and experts from medical organisations, fire corps, government departments, law enforcement agencies, research institutes and industries operating in radiological and nuclear emergencies from across the EU.
The INCLUDING (Innovative Cluster for Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies) Project aims to develop a federation in which EU Member States share such facilities and expertise. Funded by the European Commission, the project is in the second of its five-year duration. It comprises 15 partners from 10 EU Member States and has a total budget of about EUR3.5 million.
“The European Commission recognises that nuclear security in Europe must be improved by better coordination among Members States in terms of information and expertise sharing, effective use of available resources, organisation of joint training and exercise activities, and the uptake of new technologies,” he said.
“This is a multidimensional challenge, which demands the participation of all the stakeholders in the sector, from first responders to military organisations, from policymakers to crisis managers, and research organisations, industry and small and medium-sized enterprises.”
The project is “open to collaboration” with non-European countries, too, he said.
Rachel Bronson, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, explained the need for non-proliferation compliance to enable nuclear power to help solve climate change. She warned that non-proliferation, on the one hand, and nuclear power as a solution to climate change, on the other, risk being seen as mutually exclusive. The NPT “made it clear that we can have both”, she said, but the 50-year-old treaty is now “hanging on by a thread”.
The Bulletin created the Doomsday Clock in 1947, when nuclear weapons were seen as the single greatest threat to humanity. It considered possible catastrophic disruptions from climate change in its hand-setting deliberations for the first time in 2007 and moved the clock to ‘100 seconds to midnight’ to reflect this second existential threat.
“We must throw everything we have at climate change to attempt to mitigate the worst consequences that we expect. And one of those things is investment in, and attention to, nuclear power,” Bronson said.
Iran’s Bushehr 1 – the first nuclear power unit in the Middle East – was connected to the national grid in 2011. Bushehr units 2 and 3 – Russian-designed VVER-1000s – are to be completed in 2024 and 2026. The UAE’s Barakah 1 – the first nuclear power unit in the Arab world – is scheduled to enter full commercial operation later this year. It is the first of four Korean-designed APR1400 reactors being built near Abu Dhabi. Four Russian-designed VVER-1200s are planned for El Dabaa, in Egypt, and another four are planned for Akkuyu, in Turkey.
Of these four Middle Eastern countries, two – Egypt and the UAE – have signed 123 Agreements with the USA. The UAE went two steps further: firstly by committing to forgo domestic uranium enrichment and reprocessing of used fuel (a commitment informally known as the non-proliferation ‘gold standard’), and secondly by signing the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, which institutes a more stringent inspections regime on the UAE’s nuclear activities.
Iran, Jordan and Turkey have also signed the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not. The USA has not in recent years negotiated a 123 Agreement with a state that has not signed the Additional Protocol. Iran’s proliferation ambition was meant to be constrained by the JCPoA it signed in 2015 – with the E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the USA – also referred to as the P5+1 – plus the European Union) – but from which the USA withdrew three years later. In response to the US administration’s re-imposition of economic sanctions, Iran has violated a number of the conditions underpinning the agreement.
Alex Copson, of ACU Energy International, presented a project designed to address such tensions and ensure that US non-proliferation standards are sustained and enforced in the Middle East. Copson co-founded the company with Thomas B. Cochran, a former director of the US Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear programme.
The ACU project aims to “bridge the gap between government policy and facts on the ground”, Copson said, “whilst providing a lasting common denominator between governments in the region”. The long lifecycle of nuclear power plants can serve as a sustainable commitment between states, while bringing clean, reliable and cheap electricity to the region’s more than 300 million people, he said.
Based in Washington DC, ACU Energy International says it is a bipartisan endeavour with a project lifetime far beyond the cycle of presidential terms. The title of Copson’s presentation – Supercharging and Protecting the Abraham Accords – emphasised that point.
ACU’s plan to form a ‘super consortium’ to construct 40 reactor units in the Middle East – interconnected with a high-voltage regional grid – is specifically designed to bring the benefits of economic reconstruction, and simultaneously remove the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region, Copson said.
“The most important value that large-scale nuclear power can provide the wider Middle East is its ability to unite – economically and strategically – two or more superpowers and hold them together productively for more than 80 years to effect urgently needed economic and security changes,” he said.
Nuclear power provides the “sustainable bonding agent” if done on a scale large enough to meet regional needs, and with a “built-in forward-looking capacity” to fast-track reconstruction and managed defence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, he said.
The ACU super consortium is structured to create a Middle East version of the Tennessee Valley Authority that will be funded by the Arab Gulf states. It will also be the cornerstone, he said, of a “necessary new oil production partnership”.
ACU is a “nuclear-secured oil and gas deal”, he said, since the Gulf states are going to face two issues. The first is Iran’s demand for reparations for the USA’s withdrawal from the JCPoA. The second is the fact that OPEC is a “dated vehicle”.
“With 90% of the troubles in the Middle East,” he said, “you find that all roads lead to the price of oil.”
Next year’s conference, NP2, will be held in person, in London, on 11 November.