Constant vigilance on nuclear risks critical

The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency says nuclear safety worldwide is steadily improving but the risk of accidents or malicious acts can never be eliminated and there is no room for complacency.
“Vigilance and continuous improvement are key, both at existing nuclear facilities and at new facilities being planned in a growing number of countries, Mohamed El Baradei, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said as he opened the Board of Governor`s meeting of the organization today in Vienna.
The UN News Centre says he made the comments while introducing the IAEA`s Nuclear Safety Review for the Year 2008.
“The drive to introduce, or expand the use of, nuclear power always needs to be matched by a strong commitment to safety and security as indispensable enablers of nuclear technology,” he added.
To keep up, he said, the agency must focus on improving its Incident and Emergency Centre to enhance capabilities to respond to a large accident, and must provide more effective support for Member States, especially those who have recently embarked on nuclear power projects.
According to the IAEA`s current Nuclear Technology Review, 2008 was a paradoxical year for nuclear power, being the first year since 1955 in which not a single new power reactor came on line, but also seeing construction start on no fewer than ten new reactors, the highest number since 1985, the year before the Chernobyl accident.
At the same time, growth targets for nuclear power were raised in China and the Russian Federation, and the ending of restrictions on India`s nuclear trade should allow an acceleration of its planned expansion of nuclear power.
In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has now received combined licence applications for 26 new reactors, while the Department of Energy submitted a formal application to build and operate the long-planned high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The number of Agency technical cooperation projects on energy planning accelerated this year from 29 to 41 and there were also significant increases in the number of projects on uranium exploration and mining and on introducing nuclear power.
In April, China will host an International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century, organized by the Agency with the support of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organisation of industrialised countries.
In regard to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, El Baradei said that in the Democratic People`s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Agency has continued to monitor and verify the shutdown status of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
All of the fuel rods discharged from the experimental reactor remain under Agency containment and surveillance, he said.
In Iran, he said that the Agency was unable to make any progress on the remaining issues that give rise to concerns about possible military dimensions of Iran`s nuclear programme because of “lack of cooperation by Iran.”
“Unless Iran implements the transparency measures and the Additional Protocol, as required by the Security Council, the Agency will not be in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran,” he reiterated.
On Syria, he said that further analysis of the environmental samples taken from the Dair Alzour site has been carried out, revealing additional particles of uranium which had been produced as a result of chemical processing.
Syria has stated that the particles came from the missiles used to destroy the building, which Israel has denied, he said, noting that the Agency`s current assessment is that there is a low probability that the uranium was introduced by the missiles.
In subsequent communications, he maintained, Syria`s responses to some of the Agency`s questions were only partial, adding that “the Agency expects Syria to provide additional information and supporting documentation about the past use and nature of the building at the Dair Alzour site, and information about procurement activities.”