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Transparency and Openness Through Nuclear Law: Enabling Climate Action

Anthony Wetherall, Chenchen Liang

Experts project that nuclear power capacity will need to more than double in the coming decades for the world to meet its energy and climate goals.  (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Nuclear power is, and will be, part of the solution when it comes to climate change mitigation, helping countries achieve their goals and supporting social and economic development in the transition to a global low carbon economy.

With the twin crises of climate change and a level of energy insecurity not seen since the 1970s, more countries are considering nuclear power.
Wolfram Tonhauser, Head of the Nuclear and Treaty Law Section in the IAEA’s Office of Legal Affairs

Even so, nuclear technology faces unique challenges with regard to public understanding and acceptance, and is not always judged purely on a scientific basis. Meeting climate goals will require a change in public perception, alongside clarification of the scientific facts. Experts project that nuclear power capacity will need to more than double in the coming decades for the world to meet its energy and climate goals. In some countries, perception is already changing. In Germany, for example, a recent survey by Der Spiegel found that  67 per cent of surveyed Germans now favour the continued operation of the country’s remaining three nuclear power reactors for the next five years, with 41 per cent of respondents in favour of building new nuclear power plants.

“With the twin crises of climate change and a level of energy insecurity not seen since the 1970s, more countries are considering nuclear power,” said Wolfram Tonhauser, Head of the Nuclear and Treaty Law Section in the IAEA’s Office of Legal Affairs. He continued, “for many countries, the introduction of nuclear power into the energy mix represents a significant contribution to their climate mitigation objectives, and the success of many of the programmes and projects will depend strongly on openness and transparency to support informed decision making.”

Nuclear law for openness and transparency

Nuclear power is a cross-cutting area of nuclear law that is growing in importance as countries decarbonize their energy mix. The principles of openness and transparency are evident and reflected across various areas of nuclear law, both at the national level and in international nuclear legal instruments and their associated mechanisms, processes, arrangements and channels for multilateral State cooperation.  

At the international level, for example, the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management (Joint Convention) explicitly recognizes the importance of informing the public about issues regarding the safety of spent fuel and radioactive waste management. During thesiting process for proposed spent fuel and radioactive waste manangement facilities, each Contracting Party must establish and implement procedures to ensure the public availability of information on the facilities’ safety. This subject is also addressed by environmental law instruments that intersect with nuclear law, such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.

Some of the existing mechanisms and channels are mandatory and periodic, established on the basis of the relevant international legal instruments. For example, there are mandatory national reporting and periodic peer reviews, on safety aspects of nuclear power plants in the context of the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), and on the safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, in the context of the Joint Convention. Other mechanisms and channels are voluntary, such as the information exchange processes pursuant to the two legally non-binding IAEA Codes of Conduct, on the safety of research reactors and on the safety and security of radioactive sources.

“At times, the imperative for openness and transparency needs to be reconciled with the need to maintain confidentiality of sensitive information related to nuclear material and facilities, which could otherwise be the target of criminal or intentional unauthorized acts,” explained Tonhauser.

National laws and IAEA support

At the national level, exhibiting openness and transparency is one of the five key, interlinked principles of effective stakeholder engagement identified by the IAEA. “While some of the international legal instruments may sometimes be lacking in respect to what is required at the national level in the area of transparency and openness, the gaps are filled by safety standards and other international guidance,” Tonhauser added.

National nuclear legal frameworks can provide a foundation for openness and transparency. This is apparent both in the context of informing and consulting interested parties and the public about the possible radiation risks associated with facilities and activities, and about the processes and decisions of the regulatory body; and in the context of public involvement in decision making, in particular stakeholders’ right to be heard and involved. 

In the Handbook on Nuclear Law: Implementing Legislation, the IAEA sets out model provisions for a comprehensive national nuclear law which build upon the relevant instruments, standards and guidance in the area of openness and transparency, and detail the minimum of what needs to be in the legislation. For example, in the context of power reactors, the model provisions state that, during the review, assessment and licensing processes, regulators must establish procedures for informing and consulting members of the public, including persons residing in the vicinity of a proposed nuclear facility. 

“Experience shows that nuclear law-making is not always an easy task,” Tonhauser said, “For several reasons, lawmakers, including policy- and decision-makers, legislative drafters, lawyers, regulators and other officials, often need to overcome several hurdles. Parliamentarians also play a critical role, not least by enacting the needed legislation, but they also need to be informed and aware of the many issues.”

With these issues and challenges in mind, the IAEA’s legislative assistance programme supports nuclear newcomer countries, such as Egypt and the Philippines, in establishing and strengthening their nuclear legal frameworks. The programme also provides training in nuclear law and raises awareness in countries about the importance of adhering to the relevant international legal instruments. 

“To support the role that nuclear power can play in the transition to a clean energy future, adequate and comprehensive legal frameworks embracing the principle of openness and transparency are now more critical than ever,” Tonhauser said.

 

December, 2022
Vol. 63-4

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