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IAEA Ends Fukushima Safety Summit Without Agreeing New Rules

IAEA to End Meeting on Nuclear Safety
A handout photograph shows the side part of the skid of the water treatment facility taken from the 4th floor of the Unit 4 reactor building at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station in Fukushima, Japan. Source: Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Bloomberg

The United Nations atomic agency missed a chance to strengthen international nuclear safety today when delegates concluded a meeting on Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor meltdowns without implementing new policies.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 151-nation ministerial meeting ended today in Vienna with countries delaying further negotiations until September, when the IAEA holds its annual general conference alongside a separate high-level UN summit called by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

This week’s closed-door meeting featured the release of an IAEA fact-finding mission report on the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, where investigators found inadequate earthquake and tsunami defenses. Delegates were split on proposals to allow the agency to carry out random safety checks at plants and on the extent to which nuclear technologies will be shared.

“There are reasons that states don’t want to have deficiencies revealed,” London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies analyst Jasper Pandza said yesterday in a telephone interview. “States don’t want to have international pressure exerted on them. If nuclear deficiencies are revealed, states don’t want to risk their nuclear programs.”

Countries talked about ways to improve safety standards, increase transparency and review nuclear plant reviews, said Mike Weightman, the U.K. nuclear inspector who led the UN review of the Fukushima disaster in March. An IAEA proposal to subject all of the world’s 440 reactors to random safety checks was sidelined after most participants favored focusing on older reactors, Weightman said at the conference’s final session.

No Global Oversight

The U.S. was among countries that objected to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano’s calls to subject all of the world’s reactors to the checks. The agency should “narrow down the number of facilities” it proposes to look at, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said June 21.

Brazil, a growing nuclear nation with two reactors in operation and plans to build as many as four more, said international oversight would be ineffective.

“In our view, the application of international safety standards by the national regulatory authorities is more efficient and effective than its application by an international entity,” said Brazil’s radiation protection director Laercio Antonio Vinhas.

Building Bombs

Other countries, like India and Pakistan, want to boost safety by freeing up the international trade in nuclear technology. The IAEA should “facilitate access to utilities, without extraneous considerations, to the best nuclear safety technology,” India’s Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Srikumar Banerjee said in a June 20 statement.

The Indian and Pakistani requests underline concerns about giving outsiders access to sensitive nuclear information because both countries used international atomic aid meant for civilian use to build bombs. The two neighbors have fought three wars with each other since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

“IAEA inspectors, even though they are bound to keep information confidential and to be objective, are of varying nationalities,” said Pandza, the IISS analyst. “Countries may feel uncomfortable letting other nationalities into their nuclear plants on national security grounds.”

Decades of Resistance

There has been resistance for decades to mandatory safety standards and IAEA-led checks, said Trevor Findlay, director of the Canadian Center for Treaty Compliance.

“One difference this time is that Russia, traditionally the greatest obstacle, is actually proposing mandatory inspections,” Findlay, a former Australian diplomat, said by e-mail. “Japan would also be hard-pressed to oppose them. The high-level meeting in New York will add further political pressure.”

The Fukushima disaster exposed weaknesses in nuclear safety, Richard Meserve, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said today in Vienna. "We have the opportunity to advance safety at this moment. It is our obligation to seize that opportunity for all of humankind."

The IAEA’s failure to agree on new measures casts doubt on the future of the agency, set up by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 with the moniker “Atoms for Peace,” said nuclear physicist Nils Bohmer, who attended the public portions of the meeting with the environmental group Bellona.

“The public believes that the IAEA should be a strong, independent nuclear watchdog but it may be too hard for the agency to be a watchdog over safety,” Bohmer said by phone yesterday. “There are too many powerful countries whose interests run contrary to this.”

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