By John Irish
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The international community must boost nuclear safety with mandatory safety inspections and a rapid action force to contain disasters like Japan's Fukushima accident, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's 151 member states endorsed a program to help strengthen civil nuclear energy, outlining voluntary measures intended to help prevent any repeat of such an accident in the world.
But in a speech afterwards at a United Nations conference, Sarkozy said that while it was a step in the right direction, the world could not accept different standards.
"The highest requirements must be applied to everybody on all continents," Sarkozy said. "This must go through a harmonization of technical safety standards."
France draws 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants and is carrying out stress tests on its 58 reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, when the Japanese nuclear site was damaged in an earthquake and tsunami.
The United States, India, China and Pakistan are among countries stressing the responsibility of national authorities, making clear they are opposed to any moves toward mandatory outside safety inspections of their nuclear installations.
France has proposed a plan to the IAEA that would include the establishment of an independent safety authority -- something Japan is supporting -- and a rapid cross-border intervention force to help in the event of a serious incident.
It has also proposed compulsory, regular and transparent outside safety inspections.
IAEA: NUCLEAR POWER WON'T GO AWAY
France recently had a deadly nuclear-related incident of its own. A furnace exploded at the Marcoule nuclear waste treatment site in southern France, killing one person, but there was no leak of radioactive material outside the furnace, France's ASN nuclear safety watchdog said.
Sarkozy said France's quick communication of all details related to that incident was consistent with more stringent transparency requirements needed for nuclear safety matters.
After Sarkozy's speech, French minister for ecology, sustainable development, transport and housing, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said it was unbelievable that safety inspections for nuclear military sites were still much more stringent than civil nuclear power.
"I don't disagree that non-proliferation is a problem for international security, but civil nuclear safety is not a national problem. It is a cross-border one ... we saw that with what happened at Chernobyl," said Kosciusko-Morizet.
"We can't keep going on with the idea that military nuclear power is an international subject and civil nuclear power a national one. There has to be cooperation on both."
The Fukushima disaster in March spurred calls for more concerted measures on nuclear energy worldwide, but many states fear that tougher measures would violate their sovereignty.
"Fukushima provoked a movement to raise the standards but not to change the scale," Kosciusko-Morizet said. "What we are proposing is to change the scale."
The head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said from Vienna in a video address to the conference that the Fukushima accident, however terrible, would not bode the end of nuclear energy.
"In fact, the latest IAEA projections show that the global use of nuclear power will continue to grow quite significantly in the coming decades, although at a slower pace than in our previous projections," Amano said.
He added that future nuclear-power growth would reflect concerns about climate change, dwindling reserves of oil and gas and uncertainty about the supply of fossil fuels.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Doina Chiacu)