U.N. N-safety meeting ends with ambitious plans

June 24, 2011 06:10 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:00 pm IST - VIENNA

In this June 20, 2011 IAEA chief Yukiya Amano speaks during a news conference at the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety at the IAEA in Vienna.

In this June 20, 2011 IAEA chief Yukiya Amano speaks during a news conference at the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety at the IAEA in Vienna.

The IAEA chief declared a nuclear safety conference a success on Friday even though member nations still refused to give his agency any enforcement powers over new safety measures.

Yukiya Amano, chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, said the conference had drawn up a post-Fukushima road map to avoid or mitigate future nuclear reactor disasters.

But although the recommendations approved by the IAEA’s conference were ambitious — including peer reviews of national nuclear regulatory agencies and random IAEA safety reviews of nuclear plants — compliance in applying the practices is still voluntary. That means their success will depend on how strictly the new rules are observed — and by how many nations.

Mr. Amano was still upbeat, saying in closing comments the meeting “has achieved its main goal, which was to pave the way for an enhanced global nuclear safety framework.

“The result ... will be a strengthening of nuclear safety, emergency preparedness, and radiation protection for people and the environment worldwide,” he told delegates.

Over the past five days, about 30 government Ministers joined about 1,000 experts to debate the lessons of Japan’s March 11 nuclear disaster — and how to reduce chances of further major nuclear catastrophes.

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

Mr. Amano also urged that the INES scale — which classifies nuclear incidents on a seven-point scale — be revamped. The March 11 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi accident was upgraded to seven — the highest on the scale — only on April 12. That was more than a month after a 9-magnitude earthquake and a devastating tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima reactor’s cooling system and radiation started leaking into the atmosphere.

But conference documents showed the conference was content to work on upgrading present safety practices and emergency measures without giving the IAEA an enforcing role.

A “Ministerial Declaration” called on countries with nuclear networks only to agree to a commitment to “strengthening the central role of the IAEA in promoting international cooperation and in coordinating international efforts to strengthen global nuclear safety, in providing expertise and advice in this field and in promoting nuclear safety culture worldwide.”

The language of a summary of the results also reflected reluctance to give the IAEA anywhere near the enforcing power it has against nuclear proliferators — which includes referral to the U.N. Security Council.

All member states “were encouraged” to commit to apply IAEA safety standards, for instance. And the working groups “suggested” that internationally accepted stress tests be implemented by all states with nuclear energy programmes. The summary also said a mechanism “could be developed” to initiate random IAEA expert checks of nuclear reactors.

An IAEA report 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.

Mr. Amano acknowledged on Friday that only the implementation of new and broadened safety practices will make them effective.

“This is not about process, it is about results,” he said.

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