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Nuclear energy: IAEA states adopt safety action plan

Vienna (Reuters/NAN)  The UN atomic agency’s 35-nation board adopted an action plan on Tuesday to strengthen global nuclear safety following Japan’s Fukushima accident six months ago.

The board of governors approved by consensus the eight-page document put forward by Director General Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), setting out a series of voluntary steps meant to enhance standards worldwide.

A governors’ debate on the issue underlined divisions between states seeking stronger international commitments and others wanting safety to remain an issue strictly for national authorities.

“There were a number of critical voices,” one diplomat said about the closed-door discussions, referring to countries that had made clear they wanted firmer action at the international level.

Japan’s Fukushima reactor disaster in March spurred a rethink about nuclear energy worldwide and calls for more concerted measures, including beefed-up safety checks of reactors, to make sure such an accident does not recur.

One group of nations — including Germany, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Canada and Denmark — voiced disappointment about the final version of the IAEA’s safety action plan for not going far enough.

The U.S., India, China and Pakistan — all big nuclear countries — were among countries resisting any moves towards mandatory outside inspections of their atomic energy facilities.

Seeking the middle ground, the IAEA appeared to have gradually lowered its ambitions in a series of drafts.

The one that was adopted placed more emphasis on the voluntary nature of the measures than earlier versions, also regarding the central issue of nuclear plant inspections organised by the IAEA — so-called peer reviews.

At the start of the board meeting in Vienna on Monday, Amano defended the plan against the criticism, saying it would mark a significant step forward in nuclear safety.

U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies said it represented a “sound beginning to learn and act upon what we now know” about the Fukushima accident, the world’s worst such disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

He added, in his statement to the board, “We believe member states should focus their efforts initially on completing national assessments (of safety at plants) and implementing the results of those assessments.”

Germany’s envoy, Ruediger Luedeking, had earlier expressed “regret” that the plan did not “fully meet our expectations”.

A ministerial meeting in June asked the Vienna-based UN agency to draw up the plan to help improve standards in how reactors are able to withstand natural disasters, in how the industry is regulated and in how to respond to emergencies.

The political impact of the massive earthquake and huge tsunami that caused Japan’s crisis was particularly strong in Europe, highlighted by Germany’s move to close all its reactors by 2022 and Italy’s vote to ban nuclear power for decades.

Fuel rods in three reactors at the Japanese complex started melting down when power and cooling functions failed, causing radiation leakage and forcing the evacuation of 80,000 people.

At present, there are no mandatory, international nuclear safety regulations, only IAEA recommendations which national regulators are in charge of enforcing.

The UN agency conducts review missions, but only at a member state’s invitation.

Decisions on the safety of nuclear installations will “remain squarely the prerogative of sovereign national governments” also after adoption of the IAEA action plan, said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (Reuters/NAN)


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