IAEA head sees wide support for stricter atom safety

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 24, 2011 8:24 AM
IAEA head sees wide support for stricter atom safety

By Sylvia Westall and Fredrik Dahl

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.

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 said in closing remarks.

"I am particularly encouraged by the fact that the proposals I made ... enjoyed widespread support."

He said he was optimistic that member states would support efforts to raise the necessary cash for enhanced safety steps.

"I don't think we have sufficient financial resources to fund the future activities created by the Fukushima accident."

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

Amano on Monday called for nations to carry out risk assessments on 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.

The veteran Japanese diplomat also proposed strengthened international safety checks, or 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 an issue strictly for national authorities.

MEETING "BETTER THAN HOPED"

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.

"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 further 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. They are believed to include the United States and India, diplomats say.

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.

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.

The same applies to national reactor risk assessments, already under way in the European Union and elsewhere.

"Countries that don't carry out such stress tests are a bit suspect," Lacoste said.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)