UN nuclear agency urges Iran to join safety forum

Thu Jun 2, 2011 2:49pm BST

* Iran says Bushehr to start generating power soon

* Would be only state with plant outside safety convention

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA, June 2 (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear agency urged Iran on Thursday to join a 72-nation atomic safety convention, as the earthquake-prone Middle East country prepares to bring its first nuclear power station into service.

The 1996 Convention on Nuclear Safety was designed to boost safeguards after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, an issue that has gained fresh urgency following Japan's Fukushima nuclear crisis this year, through a system of peer review and mutual oversight.

Denis Flory, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran would be the only country operating a nuclear power plant not to belong to the convention. "Our first wish would be that all (IAEA) member states operating nuclear power plants in the world are parties to the convention on nuclear safety," Flory told a news conference.

Iranian media reported in early May that final tests were being conducted at the Bushehr plant and that it was expected to start generating electricity in the next two months. [ID:nMOS939346]

Meant to be the first of a network of nuclear power stations Iran says it is planning, the Russian-built complex has missed deadline after deadline to come onstream. Most recently fuel had to be removed and checked for technical problems.

A senior Russian official said in mid-May that Bushehr would be fully operational within weeks. [ID:nLDE74B1LY]

Flory said Iran could demonstrate its commitment to safety by signing up to the global convention. Western officials have also called on Iran to join the pact.

Iran is embroiled in a long-running dispute with Western powers over its nuclear programme. Its ties with the IAEA have also become strained, but it is not clear whether that has influenced Tehran's attitude towards the safety convention.

REGIONAL SECURITY CONCERN?

Last week, Iran's envoy to the IAEA said the country was "showing maximum vigilance" about safety.

Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh also suggested that the U.N. agency was already involved, telling a public debate that "every safety matter is monitored" by the Vienna-based body.

But Flory said IAEA member states were responsible for safety and the agency had no such role at Bushehr.

"We do not monitor Bushehr, no more than we monitor any other nuclear plant in the world," he said. "We do not have ground to state that they follow all IAEA safety standards."

The IAEA has no powers to enforce its safety recommendations -- unlike its authority to curb any atomic arms proliferation, where it takes the lead role in monitoring countries like Iran that some Western countries accuse of seeking a nuclear bomb.

Flory said he believed "more weight" should be given to IAEA safety standards to help rebuild confidence in nuclear energy around the world after the Fukushima emergency.

A London-based think-tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a report after the Fukushima accident that Bushehr's location on the Gulf coast made the safety of Iran's nuclear programme a "regional security concern."

It noted that Bushehr, like Fukushima, is in an earthquake zone. But Iran does not need to fear a tsunami of the size that knocked out the electricity and back-up cooling systems at Fukushima, as Bushehr is not located by an ocean. (Editing by Alistair Lyon)