The United Nations nuclear agency’s decision to hold talks about the Fukushima disaster behind closed doors this week ignores the “blindingly obvious” need for greater transparency, said a former official in the U.K. atomic industry.
“People deserve openness from the industry and its regulators,” Malcolm Grimston, a former information officer at the U.K.’s Atomic Energy Authority who is a London-based policy adviser at Chatham House, said in a June 17 interview. “It is blindingly obvious that greater transparency is needed.”
The crisis, which involved three reactor meltdowns, has been dogged by complaints that the plant operator and safety watchdogs haven’t been transparent enough. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s decision to shield the inquiry in Vienna from public view may backfire, analysts and scientists said.
The handpicked participants include scientists, diplomats and people from the industry who will have a chance to question Japanese authorities about what went wrong in the worst nuclear disaster in 25 years. Journalists are excluded.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano called the ministerial meeting to learn lessons from the March 11 accident and plot strategies to improve nuclear safety. While the agency, which operates under the slogan “Atoms for Peace,” will give public access to delegates’ opening statements, it’s locking down panel discussions on Tokyo Electric Power Co’s response to the accident and how nuclear safety can be improved after Fukushima.
An IAEA team that visited Japan to investigate concluded that regulators underestimated the risk because they mainly relied on recent earthquake data, and didn’t adhere to the agency’s guidelines recommending the use of information on historical and pre-historic temblors, according to a report released in Vienna today. Authorities also failed to review and approve provisions for safeguarding against tsunami hazards recommended by IAEA experts in 2002, it said.
Tepco has been criticized for a slow response to the accident and for publishing erroneous radiation data, while the government-run Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency has been blamed for not ensuring the utility heeded warnings that a tsunami could overwhelm the plant’s defenses.
‘Detailed and Technical’
“This meeting should have been set up to establish a technical baseline assuring that the agency will have all the facts it needs in the next six months for an independent assessment,” said Mark Hibbs, a senior nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Berlin, in a June 17 telephone interview. That probably won’t happen as ministers attending the sessions get bogged down in “expressing generalities,” he said.
The Fukushima meetings will be closed “because of the highly detailed and technical nature of the drafting work,” IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in a June 17 response to e-mailed questions. Summaries of the sessions will be made public, she said.
Bloomberg News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeking greater disclosure from meetings where decisions about international nuclear safety are made.
Government ministers, nuclear regulators and power operators from the IAEA’s 151 member states will meet for five days in the Austrian capital. Japan’s Trade Minister Banri Kaieda as well as the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko and French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet are expected to attend.
Kaieda said on June 18 the government has inspected all nuclear plants in Japan, the third-biggest user of atomic energy after the U.S. and France, and concluded they have taken steps to avoid a repeat of Fukushima.
Reactors down for regular maintenance should start as soon as the checks are completed to avoid power shortages, Kaida said in a statement.
The governors of the 14 prefectures with nuclear power plants sent a letter on May 31 to the trade ministry asking for new safety guidelines, according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg. The governors agreed to hold off approving the restarts of reactors, Issei Nishikawa, the governor of Fukui prefecture, said in an interview earlier this month.
All reactors around the world should be stress-tested for natural disasters, a group of concerned scientists and industry heads said in a letter to Amano on May 31.
“The reassessments should include an extremely careful site- and design-specific search process to ensure that extremely low-probability events and combinations of events have been identified and taken into account,” the group said in a proposal entitled “Never Again” to the IAEA on May 31.
The group includes among its members Adolf Birkhofer, a former chair of the German Reactor Safety Commission, and Sam Harbison, a former chief inspector of U.K. nuclear facilities.
Fukushima is “one of the most serious and complex disasters which human beings have ever had to deal with,” Amano said today in a speech. He appealed to IAEA members to overcome national “financial difficulties” and give the agency more money to increase nuclear safety oversight.
The centerpiece of Amano’s proposal would see reactor operators worldwide subject to random safety reviews within the next 18 months. “The knowledge that any plant could be subject to review would give operators an additional incentive to implement the highest safety standards,” he said.
The reactors at the Fukushima plant had meltdowns after an earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and backup generators, crippling its cooling systems. The disaster displaced 50,000 households because of radiation leaks.
Japan in April raised the severity rating of the crisis to 7, the highest on an international scale and the same as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
“Technical organizations should be predictive and analytical,” said former IAEA Director and U.S. nuclear engineer Robert Kelley in a June 17 telephone call. “What Fukushima showed is that the IAEA is primarily a political organization beholden to its members.”
The IAEA came under fire from member states in the weeks after the accident for not conducting independent analysis. Amano, a Japanese diplomat before taking over the agency in 2009, repeatedly said that the IAEA’s role was limited to corroborating what Japanese authorities reported.
“The information coming out of Japan was backward looking and reactive,” Grimston said. “There wasn’t a sense of importance in keeping the public informed about future events.”
While Amano blamed Japanese authorities for being slow to share information, more transparency by the UN agency itself would have benefited people threatened by the accident, Kelley said. Releasing weather maps forecasting where radioactive elements would be deposited could have helped the Japanese public, he said.
“Information was slow in coming and the IAEA never seemed to be the go-to place when it finally did arrive,” Kelley said.