IAEA wants to improve nuclear safety, but implementation will depend on individual states

VIENNA – The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday urged a worldwide safety review to prevent new nuclear disasters, but acknowledged that since the IAEA lacks enforcing authority, any improvements are only effective if countries apply them.

IAEA chief Yukiya Amano’s comments to a meeting of government ministers and other senior delegates of the 151-member IAEA, reflected the fact that most countries want any new safety measures to be voluntary – and that they work only if observed by nations with nuclear reactors.

“Even the best safety standards are useless unless they are actually implemented,” Amano said. And Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet of France – a strong opponent of outside regulation – told the meeting that “the implementation of commitment on nuclear safety depends of the willingness of each state obviously, since nuclear safety is primarily a national responsibility.”

An IAEA report compiled by international experts ahead of the Vienna conference reflected the limitations of depending on voluntary compliance. It faulted Japan for failing to implement a number of IAEA safety measures and recommendations in the years leading up to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

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Asked outside the meeting if he would like to see the IAEA have the same authority against safety violators as it now has against nuclear proliferators – which includes referral to the U.N. Security Council – Amano said: “I do not exclude that possibility.”

But he said a sense of post-Fukushima urgency dictated action now under existing rules.

“We have to move by days, weeks, months, and I cannot wait years” – the time it would take to revise the IAEA’s mandate for the 35-nation board – he said. “We need to have a sense of urgency.”

A statement adopted by the conference also showed that the gathering was content to work on upgrading present safety practices and emergency measures without giving the IAEA an enforcing role.

It called for a commitment to “strengthening the central role of the IAEA in promoting international co-operation and in co-ordinating international efforts to strengthen global nuclear safety, in providing expertise and advice in this field and in promoting nuclear safety culture worldwide.”

Outlining a five-point plan to strengthen nuclear reactor safety, Amano called for bolstering IAEA standards and ensuring they are applied; establishing regular safety reviews of all the world’s reactors; beefing up the effectiveness of national regulatory bodies; strengthening global emergency response systems, and increasing IAEA input in responding to emergencies.

Amano also urged that the INES scale – which classifies nuclear incidents on a seven-point scale – be revamped. The March accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi accident was upgraded to seven – the highest on the scale – only on April 12. That was more than a month after a 9-magnitute earthquake and a devastating tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima reactor’s cooling system and radiation started leaking into the atmosphere.

“Safety standards … in particular those pertaining to multiple severe hazards such as tsunamis and earthquakes should be reviewed,” Amano told the meeting. He proposed “IAEA international expert peer reviews” to complement national safety checks, and establishing stockpiles of emergency equipment by reactor operators to try and prevent a replay of Fukushima.

“Many countries have accepted (peer reviews) already; European countries, Japan, the United States,” he told reporters outside the meeting. “I would like to expand it, so that all nuclear power plants will see a peer review on a random basis.”

Speaking for Japan, Economics Minister Banri Kaieda pledged that his country “will take drastic measures to ensure the highest level of safety” for its reactor network.

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