The international emergency response framework for dealing with nuclear power plant accidents needs to be reassessed and communications improved in light of the current crisis in Japan, the head of the United Nations agency that coordinates global nuclear safety said today.
“Nuclear power will remain an important and viable option for many countries as a stable and clean source of energy,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano told an emergency meeting of his Board of Governors in Vienna, noting that the situation at Japan’s earthquake- and tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains very serious although “we are starting to see some positive developments.”
Mr. Amano, who has just returned from a flying visit to Japan, said the current emergency response framework was designed largely in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the then Soviet Union, the worst ever civilian nuclear accident, and before the impact of the so-called information revolution.
“It reflects the realities of the 1980s, not of the 21st century,” he stressed, putting the speed and huge volume of information among the most significant changes since then.
“The responsibility of the IAEA is to provide authoritative and validated information as quickly as possible, but doing this under the current arrangements inevitably takes time and has limitations,” he said. “Some countries are reviewing their plans in the light of Fukushima. The agency’s role in nuclear safety may need to be re-examined, along with the role of our safety standards.”
It is already clear that arrangements for putting international nuclear experts in touch with each other quickly during a crisis need to be improved, he added, highlighting the role of the IAEA as the forum where discussion on the lessons learned from Fukushima should take place. “A thorough review of the accident will be necessary, in which peer review will have an important role to play,” he said.
Turning to the latest situation at Fukushima, Mr. Amano noted the high levels of contamination measured near the plant and the concerns of millions of people in Japan, neighbouring countries and further afield about possible dangers to human health, environmental contamination and risks to foodstuffs.
“The agency is doing all it can to provide accurate and factual information. I have confidence that the Japanese Government will address public concerns properly,” he said.
IAEA radiation monitoring experts have begun sending back measurements to Vienna headquarters, first from Tokyo and now from locations close to the Fukushima site, and additional staff will fly out from Vienna shortly to strengthen the team. The agency is also deploying its in-house expertise on radiation contamination of foodstuffs.
“I have no doubt that this crisis will be effectively overcome. Nature can be cruel. But human beings are brave, resourceful and resilient, as the people affected by the tsunami have shown in the last 10 days,” Mr. Amano said, calling the work of the emergency teams labouring mostly without electric power and at elevated radiation levels nothing short of “heroic.”
Explaining IAEA’s role, he noted that its Emergency Centre was activated immediately after the 11 March quake and tsunami, which according to latest media reports have killed at least 15,000 people, and has been working around the clock ever since, in constant communication with counterparts in Japan and other countries.
But he stressed that the IAEA is not a “nuclear safety watchdog” and that responsibility for nuclear safety lies with Member States. The agency acts as a hub for international cooperation, establishing safety standards and providing expert advice, but, in contrast to its role in the nuclear non-proliferation (NPT), nuclear safety measures are applied voluntarily by each individual country, with IAEA’s role being supportive.
On his trip to Japan, Mr. Amano said he assured Prime Minister Naoto Kan, other Government ministers, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that operates the Fukushima plant,- and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) that the country could count on the full support of the international community, both practical and moral, in overcoming the very serious situation.
He urged the Japanese authorities to further improve the provision of information to the IAEA. “My message was well received,” he said. “Prime Minister Kan expressed his strong commitment to ensuring the highest transparency in information sharing and said every effort would be made to improve the collection and provision of information.”