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IAEA Meets on Fukushima, Debates Watchdog’s Crisis Response

March 21 (Bloomberg) -- Top powers at the United Nations nuclear watchdog are meeting today to discuss the Fukushima crisis even as emergency officials struggle to understand the full scope of the world’s worst atomic disaster in 25 years.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-member board of governors has convened its first extraordinary meeting since December 2009, when IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was elected to his post. Amano reported on his March 19 meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan and senior atomic officials about the steps being taken to control radiation leaking from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear complex.

“The agency’s role in nuclear safety may need to be re-examined, along with the role of our safety standards,” Amano said in a statement from Vienna. “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.”

The first opportunity to begin evaluating the IAEA’s emergency response will come next month at a conference in Vienna, he said.

The agency, set up in 1956 to spread safe atomic energy, has been critical of Japan’s information sharing. Data about the accident by Tokyo Electric Power Co. have been slow in coming and incomplete, prompting the Japanese government to set up a task force to share information.

Need for Speed

“It should be professional and responsible,” Vladimir Asmolov, deputy head of Russia’s state nuclear company Rosatom Corp. and a veteran of the emergency response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, said by telephone yesterday. “Instructions from the managing team to the people directly involved in the response need to be fast above all.”

Under IAEA rules, Japan must authorize officials inside the agency to share information about the reactors so assessments can be made about potential radiation hazards and how much time will be needed for the fuel inside to cool down.

As of March 16, IAEA safety officials didn’t have precise data about the composition of the fuel in the reactors or the age of the fuel loads, Deputy Director Denis Flory said. Japan authorized the IAEA’s safeguards unit to release some information about the Fukushima site “several days ago,” spokesman Graham Andrew said yesterday. He wouldn’t elaborate.

‘Full Support’

Amano said he “encouraged the Japanese authorities to further improve the provision of information to the agency” when he met with them on March 19. “I pledged our full support and conveyed offers of assistance to Japan. Prime Minister Kan expressed his strong commitment to ensuring the highest transparency in information sharing,” he said.

The IAEA, which is running an around-the-clock emergency response unit to support Japanese authorities, has also experienced information missteps, reporting incorrect data and contradicting Japan’s own damage assessments.

Diplomats inside closed briefings at the agency have pressed the IAEA to increase the transparency and quality of the information it shares, three officials who were present said on condition of anonymity because the meetings weren’t public. IAEA members want the organization to assess data independently from inside Japan rather than just to “verify its accuracy,” as Amano described the agency’s role in a March 18 press briefing.

The IAEA has a permanent office in Tokyo, where inspectors record the fuel levels in Japanese atomic facilities. Knowing the age and fuel mixtures inside the reactors can help officials assess damage and mitigate new risks.

Chernobyl Reactor

While the IAEA is quick to point out that the Fukushima breakdown is nothing like Chernobyl because the two reactors were built to different designs and won’t emit radiation in the same way, they may have reinforced findings derived from a 2005 investigation into the Ukraine accident.

The factors behind the Chernobyl meltdown “were all driven, in a sense, by a lack of international cooperation,” according to IAEA findings on the meltdown in September 2005. “The Chernobyl accident revealed a sharp disparity in nuclear design and operational safety standards.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at jtirone@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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