Friday, November 18, 2011

Russia to Join NEA:

An Important Step

Recent news articles have highlighted Russia's intention to join the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since I used to work at the NEA as the Deputy Director-General, I have more than a passing interest in this development.

In fact, one of my last assignments in that position was to head the NEA delegation to Moscow in 2006 to negotiate a joint cooperation declaration that was signed just before I left the agency in 2007. I was very proud to learn that this declaration was cited in one article as being a precursor to the current move to membership. (Alas, the article in which this information appeared is a subscription publication.

During my tenure at the NEA, and in the years since then, concern has been raised about the continued relevance of the NEA in a world where an increasing number of nuclear power plants will be built in countries outside the NEA's membership. At one point, OECD/NEA countries accounted for 85% of the world's nuclear power capacity. That percentage is expected to drop rapidly in the future.

Having Russia join the NEA as a member helps address this concern. Obviously though, the concern will remain, because the biggest builders by far of new nuclear power plants are expected to be China and India, neither of which are NEA members. However, China was also beginning to participate in some NEA activities by the time I left the agency.

Those who are not too familiar with the differences between the NEA and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) may wonder why it is important for NEA to continue to exist. Yes, IAEA membership does include Russia, China, and India--as well as the many smaller countries who are beginning to consider building nuclear power plants. It is difficult to go into all the differences in a short space.

Suffice it to say that the smaller membership of NEA, including, as it now does, most of the countries that have significant nuclear research and development activities, and that have years of experience operating nuclear fleets, is able to work efficiently and effectively on common issues associated with nuclear power. The NEA and IAEA have developed a generally co-operative pattern of working together that has, a number of times, facilitated the incubation of new products within the smaller membership of the NEA, then disseminated them to the larger membership of the IAEA.

Therefore, it is a significant move forward to have Russia join the NEA as a fully participating member. In the longer term, it will be valuable for NEA to increase the involvement of other major players on the nuclear stage, but for a variety of reasons, I expect that other relationships will prove harder and will take a longer time to mature.

Given my background in the NEA, I can't resist making one correction to the subscription article that reported on this development. The article said that Russia would be the first country to join the NEA without first being a member of its parent body, the OECD. This assertion is not true. It is a little-known fact that South Korea joined the NEA before joining the OECD. South Korea joined the NEA in 1993 and did not become a member of the OECD until 1996.

In fact, although it is unusual (South Korea, until now, was the only country that had joined the NEA before joining the OECD), the NEA charter does not require countries to hold membership in the OECD in order to join. This flexibility may stand it in good stead as it seeks to remain a body that includes most of the world's nuclear power operators.

For those who are interested in more about this matter or other matters of NEA history, I have produced a short history and accomplishments of the OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency. A review draft of my findings is available.

[For anyone interested in the history of the NEA, I prepared a document, available as a review draft, covering the first 50 years of the agency as background for the celebration of that event several years ago.]

Note: Following the original publication of this post, I wrote a followup post in response to a question on the need for both the IAEA and the NEA.


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