June 24, 2011 / 12:21 PM / in 7 years

IAEA head sees wide support for stricter atom safety

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. atomic agency chief said on Friday he had broad support for his plan to strengthen international safety checks on nuclear power plants to help avoid any repeat of Japan’s Fukushima crisis.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano attends a news conference during the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna in Vienna June 20, 2011. REUTERS/Herwig Prammer

Speaking after an unprecedented international meeting on nuclear safety, Yukiya Amano said there had been some differences among senior nuclear officials and regulators from the IAEA’s 151 member states at the week-long talks in Vienna.

“But I am struck by how much broad agreement there has been on the fundamentals,” he told delegates in closing remarks.

The June 20-24 ministerial conference, hosted by the IAEA in Vienna, was aimed at launching global action to improve safety around the world after Japan’s Fukushima emergency, caused by an earthquake followed by a huge tsunami on March 11.

“Now is the time to learn and implement the lessons from Fukushima. Now is the time to further enhance nuclear safety across the world,” said British chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman, who headed an IAEA fact-finding mission to Japan.

Amano called on Monday for nations to assess risks at all their reactors within 18 months, to make sure they could withstand extreme natural events of the kind that crippled the power station in Japan’s northeast.

He also proposed strengthened international safety checks in the form of peer reviews on reactors worldwide organised by the U.N. body.

Diplomats said this part of the plan could meet resistance from those which want to keep safety strictly a national issue.

But on Friday the IAEA’s member states appeared to have shown unity on a topic that is high on the political agenda in several countries and has come under intense public scrutiny.

MEETING “BETTER THAN HOPED”

“There was very strong convergence of the different positions of the countries, the safety authorities and the operators,” Andre-Claude Lacoste, chairman of France’s Nuclear Safety Authority, told Reuters.

“It went better than we had hoped,” he said, adding that there could be a divergence of views down the line as Amano puts together his action plan for IAEA meetings in September.

Japan’s crisis has prompted a rethink of energy policy worldwide, underlined by Germany’s decision to close all its reactors by 2022 and Italy’s vote to ban nuclear for decades.

Three reactors at the Japanese complex went into meltdown when power and cooling functions failed, causing radiation leakage and forcing the evacuation of some 80,000 people.

But even though IAEA states agree on the need for enhanced nuclear safety, they have voiced differing positions on how much international action is needed.

Russia wants to move toward making the agency’s safety standards compulsory and fellow nuclear plant exporter France has also called for stronger international steps.

But other states are more cautious, stressing that safety is mainly a responsibility for national authorities.

Currently there are no mandatory, international nuclear safety regulations, only IAEA recommendations which national regulators are in charge of enforcing. The U.N. agency conducts review missions, but only at a member state’s invitation.

The IAEA’s ambitions will be set back if countries with the biggest nuclear aims, China and India, don’t cooperate, Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said.

“In the past there has been resistance. China’s public statements have been short on specifics, and India insists that all reviews must be on a voluntary basis,” Hibbs said.

John Rowe, chairman of Exelon Corp, the largest nuclear operator in the United States, earlier this month said the need for a strong set of international standards and enforcement grows as more countries develop nuclear capacity.

“The problem is that national sovereignty is a very big deal,” Rowe told a Reuters Global Energy and Climate Summit.

“Most nations don’t want people from the U.S. or Western Europe coming around telling them how to do things.”

Some delegates at the Vienna meeting said it was not necessary to make the safety missions mandatory, as peer pressure would force more countries to accept them, as well as national reactor risk assessments.

“Countries that don’t carry out such stress tests are a bit suspect,” Lacoste said.

Additional reporting by Eileen O'Grady in Houston

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