By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - Important progress has been made towards strengthening global nuclear safety after Japan's Fukushima accident last year, according to the United Nations atomic watchdog.
The International Atomic Energy Agency made the assessment in a report prepared for next month's annual meeting of IAEA member states, which endorsed the safety plan by consensus last September despite criticism that it did not go far enough.
"Since the adoption of the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, significant progress has been made in several key areas," the Vienna-based agency said.
These included "improvements in emergency preparedness and response capabilities," it added in the nine-page document posted on its website.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, was hit by an earthquake and tsunami that knocked out power supply and swamped its backup power and cooling systems, resulting in meltdowns of three of its six reactors.
About 150,000 people were forced to flee as radioactive materials spewed, some never to return.
Last month in Japan, a government-appointed inquiry raised doubts about whether other nuclear plants in the country were prepared for massive disasters.
The IAEA plan approved six months after the accident was criticized by some nations for not championing more mandatory steps. It outlined a series of voluntary steps intended to help prevent a repeat of such a crisis event anywhere in the world.
It called on countries to promptly carry out assessments of their nuclear power plants on how they would be able to withstand extreme natural hazards as well as steps to strengthen emergency preparedness and information.
The IAEA report on the plan's implementation so far - which will be presented to the September 17-21 General Conference of the agency's more than 150 member states - said there had been progress in assessing "safety vulnerabilities" of atomic plants.
This and other measures had contributed to "the enhancement of the global nuclear safety framework", it said, without giving details about the situation in individual countries.
"Significant progress has also been made in reviewing the agency's safety standards which continue to be widely applied by regulators, operators and the nuclear industry in general."
There is "increased attention and focus on vitally important areas such as accident prevention", it added.
But continued efforts need to be made to ensure more effective communication to the public if there is a radiological or nuclear emergency, the report said.
The IAEA was criticized for its initial handling of the Fukushima disaster, with media and Vienna-based diplomats saying it was slow to give information in the early days of the crisis.
The Fukushima accident spurred a rethink about nuclear energy worldwide and calls for more concerted action, including beefed-up international safety checks of nuclear power plants.
But preparatory work last year on the IAEA plan exposed differences between states seeking more international commitments and others wanting safety to remain an issue strictly for national authorities.
One group of nations - including Germany and France - voiced disappointment about the final version of the IAEA's safety action plan for not including stricter measures.
The United States, India and China were among countries stressing the responsibility of national authorities.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)