GERMANY | UN nuclear safety meeting implies criticism of Japan

Posted on June 20, 2011

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GERMANY | DEUTSCHE WELLE |20 June 2011

The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant has prompted a worldwide rethink on the safety of nuclear power. Now the United Nations nuclear watchdog has called for strengthened standards at a conference in Vienna.

The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog (IAEA) appealed to states with nuclear facilities on Monday to improve nuclear safety standards in the wake of the Fukushima crisis in Japan.

During the first day of a five day conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano called on countries to carry out a thorough and transparent risk assessment of their facilities.

He outlined a five-point plan in which he proposed regulators and the nuclear industry are kept completely separate.

“National nuclear regulatory bodies must be genuinely independent, adequately funded and staffed by well-trained people,” he told the conference.

Prior to the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s nuclear regulatory body was linked to the trade ministry, despite an IAEA recommendation in 2007 that the two should be split. Amano’s comments implied that this was meant poor oversight and may have contributed to the accident.

Peer reviews

Amano went on to address the need for a series of peer reviews of standards at all nuclear power stations.

The damaged No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complexThe Fukushima crisis alarmed nuclear countries around the worldIn some parts of the world, including Europe, those reviews are called stress tests and are already underway. But the nuclear chief asserted that he wanted his inspectors to be able examine nuclear plants at short notice.

“I would like to expand it so that all existing power plants will receive peer review on a random basis. Physically it is not possible for us to go to 440 nuclear power plants in a short period of time,” he said.

The conference is the first international review of nuclear safety since the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in March.

In a statement on its website, the IAEA said the conference aimed to “draw on the lessons from the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi NPP in order to strengthen nuclear safety throughout the world.”

No binding international standards

At present, nuclear safety issues are dealt with at a national level; international conventions and agreements are non-binding.

But there has been some debate among IAEA member states over whether agency safety standards should be compulsory.

Although developing nations tend to support compulsory standards, developed states want to retain the status quo, which is the likely outcome of the debate.

Conference president Antonio Guerreiro of Brazil asserted, however, that, whatever is decided, safety was the main issue.

“This is a national decision by each government but it is in the interests of all – that those countries which opt for nuclear power have the highest safety standards applied because as they say an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere,” he said.

Shaken confidence

Anti-nuclear demonstration in Potsdam, GermanyAnti-nuclear protests pushed Germany to withdraw from nuclear powerThe disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the world’s worst for 25 years, has shaken confidence in the safety of atomic energy worldwide. Three reactors went into meltdown after a severe earthquake and tsunami damaged power and cooling systems.

An IAEA report prepared for the conference found that Japanese nuclear regulators failed to take adequate steps to secure the plant against tsunamis following an evaluation in 2002.

But the report praised the way workers on the ground dealt with the emergency.

Prompted in part by the accident, Germany has decided to shut down all its nuclear plants by 2022.

Attending the five-day conference are representatives from the 151 IAEA member states, including ministers from some 30 countries.

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