U.N. atom chief urges nuclear safety inspections and tests

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The U.N. nuclear chief called for countries to carry out risk assessments on their reactors within 18 months and for strengthened international safety checks to help prevent a repeat of Japan’s atomic crisis.

Yukiya Amano, opening a ministerial meeting on improving safety after the Fukushima emergency, said U.N. experts should be able to carry out random reviews of nuclear power stations.

His proposals — aimed at ensuring nuclear plants can withstand extreme events such as the earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima — may prove controversial for states which want to keep safety an issue strictly for national authorities, Reuters reports.
“Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power has been badly shaken,” Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy (IAEA), said in a speech to ministers and regulators from the U.N. body’s 151 member states.
“It is imperative that the most stringent safety measures are implemented everywhere … Countries with nuclear power should agree to systematic, periodic peer reviews by the IAEA.”

Ten percent of the world’s 440 reactors could be checked during a three-year period, the veteran Japanese diplomat said, suggesting power operators could help foot the bill.

He said nuclear safety would remain a national responsibility — making clear that governments would have the main task of testing, if only in theory, whether reactor systems could withstand various disaster scenarios. But he also made clear he wanted the U.N. agency to play a greater role.

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.

At the June 20-24 meeting, IAEA member nations will begin charting a strategy on boosting global nuclear safety, but differences on how much international action is needed may hamper follow-up efforts, diplomats say.

Russia wants to move towards making the U.N. agency’s safety standards compulsory, but many other countries are sceptical, stressing the role of national authorities.

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.

EXTREME NATURAL HAZARDS

Britain said it supported Amano’s proposal to expand safety peer reviews, comparing this to the way the International Monetary Fund carries out checks on the economies of individual countries and prepares recommendations for improvements.
“A genuine peer review process — nobody has anything to fear from such a process — because we all have things to learn,” Energy Secretary Chris Huhne told reporters.

European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger went further, saying a “binding peer review requirement” should be added to an international convention on nuclear safety.

Japanese officials have come under fire for their handling of the emergency and the authorities have admitted that lax standards and poor oversight contributed to the accident.

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.
“Thorough and transparent national risk assessments should be made of all nuclear power plants in the world,” Amano said.

He gave no details of how such assessments would be carried out. Typically experts speak of “stress tests” which provide for theoretical and practical simulations of how power plant systems would respond to various extreme events, such as earthquakes.

Amano said these national tests should be followed by IAEA expert reviews to check operational safety, emergency preparedness, and the effectiveness of regulatory systems.



Tokyo’s chief delegate Banri Kaieda said Japan would “make sure to apply the lessons we learned” from the accident.
“But whether or not we will make this compulsory for other countries of the world, we would have to take into account the different views of different countries,” he told reporters.