IAEA Discusses Safety Standards

More than 150 nations are gathering this week at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to look at safety standards for nuclear power reactors in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The IAEA does not have the authority to either set safety standards or enforce them, and most nations want that to remain a national responsibility. But the Fukushima disaster has motivated some nations to initiate a process that could lead to better safety practices worldwide.

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More than 150 nations are gathered this week at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Their task is to review safety standards for nuclear power reactors, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The IAEA does not have the authority to enforce safety standards for the commercial nuclear power industry. Most nations want that to remain a national responsibility.

But as NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the Fukushima disaster has motivated some nations to consider improving standards worldwide.

MIKE SHUSTER: Business as usual is not an option, that's how Yukiya Amano opened this week's international summit on nuclear safety, prompted by the Fukushima nuclear emergency that hit Japan in March.

In a news conference after the meeting began, Amano, who is director general of the IAEA, insisted the Fukushima disaster has motivated the international community to pay closer attention to nuclear safety.

Dr. YUKIYA AMANO (Director General, IAEA): I sense there is a very firm determination on the part of IAEA member states to strengthen safety.

SHUSTER: The key question is how. Amano proposed several measures to improve nuclear safety and to make sure the measures are implemented everywhere. Among them, regular safety reviews of nuclear reactors around the world, including systematic peer reviews under the supervision of the IAEA and strengthened emergency response systems. But the IAEA does not have the legal authority to make such measures compulsory.

So Amano has a delicate balancing act to perform this week in Vienna, to urge stricter safety measures and persuade nations that is in their own best interests.

The agency has to be seen responding aggressively to the Fukushima disaster, says Antonio Guerreiro, Brazil's representative in Vienna and chairman of this week's meeting. The stakes are too high.

Mr. ANTONIO GUERREIRO (President, Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety): There are more than 400 nuclear power plants across the world in 30 countries or so. And it is extremely important for governments, OK, to reassure their public opinions that they are taking seriously what happened in Japan.

SHUSTER: This week there will be a lot of talk about international safety standards. But only national government agencies, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States, have the legal authority to enforce safety standards and practices. The IAEA does issue safety guidelines, and those are certain to be updated this week.

But guidelines are just that, guidelines, says George Perkovich, an expert on nuclear power issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Dr. GEORGE PERKOVICH (Director, Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): The IAEA can't mandate international safety standards. And there aren't really mandated international safety standards. So you have to have meetings like this to try to educate and motivate many different actors to decide that, yes, things other than expense may be more important. In other words, safety may be more important, you know, than getting the lowest cost or bid.

SHUSTER: The IAEA director is proposing that all nations carry out risk assessments for their reactors over the next year and a half. At the same time, he would like to see 10 percent of the world's 440 commercial reactors undergo safety inspections on a random basis over the next three years.

The IAEA does not have the budget to finance this initial enhanced safety program, and there is some thought that the commercial operators of power plants should pay for it.

But that runs into the perpetual dilemma for the nuclear power industry, says David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security.

Dr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (President, Institute for Science and International Security): Cost is always factored in, and safety has often suffered because of that. And so, I hope that the accident will be kind of a boost to the safety side that says, look, we really do have to improve the safety of these things and consider essentially very unusual and unexpected accidents.

SHUSTER: This week's meeting in Vienna is also likely to approve a strengthened role for the IAEA in emergency preparedness and response. The agency already has limited response and assistance capabilities that could be used in a crisis. The Fukushima disaster sent a message to the world's nuclear power industry that more is needed, including stockpiles of emergency equipment.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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