By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - Many countries have taken concrete steps to improve safety at nuclear power plants to help prevent extreme natural hazards such as earthquakes from causing another Fukushima-style disaster, the chairman of an expert meeting said on Friday.
Speaking after a four-day conference at the Vienna headquarters of the United Nations' atomic agency, Antonio Godoy, an Argentinean seismic expert, said the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan had prompted real change in the industry.
"Physical upgrades have been implemented in a number of nuclear installations worldwide," he told a news conference. "Many member states took immediate action to remedy, to enhance safety."
However, environmental group Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear energy on safety grounds, dismissed the upbeat assessment.
"It is painting a situation which doesn't exist," Jan Beranek, head of Greenpeace's nuclear campaign, told Reuters by phone.
"The U.S., Japan and Europe have not made virtually any physical changes at the power plants so far," he said.
The September 4-7 meeting of 120 participants from 35 countries was called to explore the lessons learnt from last year's reactor crisis in Japan, the first time a combination of extreme external hazards caused a nuclear plant accident.
A summary of the talks said there was a need to ensure that the "siting and design of nuclear plants should include sufficient protection against complex combinations of extreme external events."
Meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami sent radiation spewing over large areas, forcing more than 160,0000 people to flee. In the following months, all of Japan's remaining reactors were shut for safety checks. Two reactors resumed operation in July.
The worst such accident since the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion, Fukushima also cast a question mark over the future of nuclear energy elsewhere in the world. In Europe, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium decided to move away from nuclear power to increase their reliance on renewable energy.
The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said it believes, however, that global use of nuclear energy could increase by as much as 100 percent by 2030 on the back of growth in Asia, including in China and India.
A Japanese government-appointed inquiry suggested in July that safety steps taken at other reactors in Japan may not be enough to cope with a big, complex catastrophe caused by both human error and natural causes in a "disaster-prone nation".
Godoy did not single out any countries but said more than ten had reported "significant progress" during the Vienna meeting, including enhancements at plants to better protect them against extreme natural events.
"In many plants, upgrades to systems, to structures and components are being done," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)