Nuclear Operators May Be Tapped for Safety Costs, IAEA Says

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Photographer: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations nuclear watchdog is weighing whether atomic-plant operators should be tapped to fill budget shortfalls needed to finance tougher safety reviews in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdown.

The nuclear industry’s contribution to safety reform will be discussed today by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, where delegates from 151 countries are convening for the second day of a one-week meeting.

“We should not stick to the traditional ways of receiving funds from governments,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said yesterday at a press briefing in Vienna. The IAEA may partner with “private companies, associations and industry” to pay for expanded safety reviews, he said.

Scientists, diplomats and people from the nuclear industry are meeting behind closed doors in the Austrian capital this week to begin the process of drafting stricter international nuclear-safety rules. The IAEA, best known for safeguarding potential nuclear weapons material, will need more money to increase its safety work.

“We have increasing demands,” said Amano, a Japanese diplomat before taking over the agency in 2009. “There are lots of requirements for the IAEA to increase its activities.”

Among proposed changes, the agency is weighing seeking the authority to impose random nuclear-safety checks within the next 18 months. It’s also considering creating a stockpile of equipment that can be used in an atomic emergency and aims to boost cooperation with other UN agencies, the agency said in a nine-page document.

Independent Oversight

Increasing the safety of nuclear plants shouldn’t involve high cost increases, John Ritch, the director general of the World Nuclear Association, will say at the IAEA later today.

“It is crucially important that regulatory actions taken in response to Fukushima have demonstrable benefit arising from any increased costs,” Ritch said, according to an e-mailed version of his speech.

The response to Fukushima should focus on “promising real safety gain” by improving back-up emergency systems to maintain post-shutdown cooling and introducing measures to regain outside power in the event of a blackout, Ritch will say. The atomic power industry also needs to make clear to the public that accidents will happen.

“Even as we strive for impeccable management of nuclear facilities, we can never have confidence that we will succeed,” Ritch is to say. “Nor can we expect the public to believe that we have. We must concede that human beings make mistakes.”

Regulatory Independence

The UN agency, with an annual budget of around 315 million euros ($451 million), raises money from its member states. The U.S., the European Union and Japan are its biggest contributors.

Earlier this month, Japan pledged to make its own nuclear regulator more independent from industry. Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that owns the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi, had its credit rating cut to junk status yesterday by Moody’s Investors Service.

A 160-page IAEA report released yesterday showed that Japanese regulators underestimated the threat of tsunamis to coastal atomic plants.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out power at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, disabling cooling systems and triggering meltdowns at three reactors. The tsunami that hit Fukushima rose to as high as 15 meters (49 feet), Tokyo Electric said in April.

Voluntary Review

A voluntary review of safety carried out in 2002 by Tokyo Electric raised the expected tsunami height to 5.7 meters, the IAEA said. The conclusions weren’t reviewed by Japan’s nuclear safety regulator, it said.

Estimates of the maximum magnitude of potential earthquakes at Fukushima were based only on recent historical seismological data and didn’t include evidence of prehistorical geological movements, according to the report.

“Our regulators need to learn from each other, share best practices and methodologies that will help increase transparency and improve the overall safety of our nuclear reactors,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman said yesterday in a speech.

The U.S. wants to use the Fukushima disaster to reform nuclear liability laws that will cap company damages in the event of a future atomic accident, he said.

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