Nine months after the worst nuclear disaster in decades, the world’s atomic-energy watchdog has yet to dedicate additional money to improve reactor safety.
The delay has prompted the U.S. to call for the International Atomic Energy Agency to prepare a budget for its so-called action plan and to clarify how it will respond to future nuclear emergencies. The United Nations-funded agency said the allocation will be determined after a team draws up the “main activities associated with the action plan,” according to a Dec. 5 statement to Bloomberg News. Money wasn’t included in the IAEA’s budget agreed to in September.
The agency classifies safety as one of its top three priorities, yet is spending 8.9 percent of its 352 million-euro ($469 million) regular budget this year on making plants secure from accidents. As it focuses resources on the other two priorities -- technical cooperation and preventing nuclear-weapons proliferation -- the IAEA is missing an opportunity to improve shortcomings in reactor safety exposed by the Fukushima disaster, said Trevor Findlay, a former Australian diplomat.
“The IAEA did not seize the opportunity of this dreadful event to advance the agency’s role in nuclear safety,” said Findlay, who is finishing a two-year study of the Vienna-based agency at Harvard University. Director General Yukiya Amano “has been tough on Iran and Syria, but not when it comes to nuclear safety.”
The IAEA was founded in 1957 as the global “Atoms for Peace” organization to promote “safe, secure and peaceful” nuclear technology, according to its website. A staff of 2,300 work at the IAEA’s secretariat at its headquarters.
Its mission statement encapsulates the same conflict as Japan’s failed nuclear-safety regime: playing the role of both promoter and regulator of atomic power, according to scientists, diplomats and analysts interviewed by Bloomberg News.
About half of the IAEA’s budget is devoted to restricting the use of nuclear material for military purposes, and the agency has spent a decade investigating Iran’s atomic program because of suspicion the country is developing weapons.
As the agency targeted weapons, the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant capped years of faked safety reports and fatal accidents in Japan’s atomic-power industry. The country’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency was in a conflict of interest because it was under the control of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which had a mandate to promote nuclear power.
The IAEA “accepted for years the overlap between regulation and industry in Japan,” said Johannis Noeggerath, president of Switzerland’s Society of Nuclear Professionals and safety director for the country’s Leibstadt reactor. “They have a safety culture problem.”
The agency encourages “safe, secure and responsible use of nuclear energy in those countries that independently decide to embark on a nuclear power program,” said Gill Tudor, an IAEA spokeswoman. “Part of the agency’s mandate is to advise and work with independent national regulators.”
Since coming to office in 2009, Amano has spent five times more money fighting terrorism and preventing proliferation than on making the world’s 450 nuclear reactors safer, UN data show.
The agency’s safety division garnered little respect in U.S. diplomatic cables that described the department as a marketing channel for countries seeking to sell atomic technology.
They also questioned the credentials of Tomihiro Taniguchi, the IAEA’s former head of safety who helped create the regulatory regime in Japan, which is being blamed for failings that led to the Fukushima disaster.
“The department of safety and security needs a dedicated manager and a stronger leader,” U.S. IAEA Ambassador Glyn Davies wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks, the anti-secrecy website. “For the past 10 years, the department has suffered tremendously because of Deputy Director General Taniguchi’s weak management and leadership skills.”
The U.S. backed Amano’s bid to replace Mohamed ElBaradei in 2008 because he was believed to be supportive on confronting Iran. ElBaradei was accused by the U.S. and its allies of overstepping his IAEA mandate in seeking compromise solutions to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. Amano was “solidly in the U.S. court,” according to a U.S. cable in October 2009 released by Wikileaks. The U.S. IAEA mission declined to comment on the cables.
By the time Amano reached office, the IAEA’s nuclear-safety division had downplayed the threat from natural disasters. In 2010, the director general’s first full year in office, anti-terrorism spending rose at three times the rate of safety expenditure.
“Tsunamis, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes have affected many parts of the world and nuclear installations everywhere responded admirably,” Taniguchi said in a December 2005 speech. “The design and operational features ensured that extreme natural conditions would not jeopardize safety.”
Taniguchi was also an executive of Japan’s Nuclear Power Engineering Corp., which promotes public acceptance of the operation of atomic-power plants, before joining the IAEA.
“I made contributions to significantly improving safety systems around the world,” Taniguchi said when asked about the U.S. cables. Now a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he lectures graduate students on nuclear security.
Promoting Atomic Power
The IAEA’s own mission to promote atomic power may also contradict the Convention on Nuclear Safety.
“Each contracting party shall take the appropriate steps to ensure an effective separation between the functions of the regulatory body and those of any other body or organization concerned with the promotion or utilization of nuclear energy,” says article 8.2 of the convention.
In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports to Congress and is responsible for the licensing and oversight of atomic power operators, according to its website.
The IAEA has been tarnished by a series of nuclear-safety mishaps, including the combustion of plutonium in 2009 at an Austrian lab and a mishandled vial that contaminated part of a Belgian facility in 2011, according to the agency.
One IAEA plant inspector fell into a Czech nuclear-fuel cooling pond in 2007, according to four officials who declined to be identified. The agency won’t make public a full list of incidents involving its own staff.
“IAEA inspectors and field workers are largely on their own when it comes to safely carrying out their jobs,” said Robert Kelley, a former IAEA director who led inspections in Iraq. “They receive little guidance or support and they are very dependent on the facilities they are inspecting to protect their health.”
The agency’s failure on Fukushima is due to its timid leadership and an over-reliance on Japanese data, said Findlay, who will present the Center for International Governance Innovation’s report on the IAEA in Vienna in April. “The agency’s self-promotion led outsiders to naturally expect the agency to leap into action, so it only has itself to blame for that.”
Japan’s public remains uneasy about the reactors at Fukushima, which are still exposed to damage from earthquakes, said Akio Matsumura, a former diplomat and chairman of the World Business Academy. The absence of independent information about the meltdown compounds those fears, he said.
“The IAEA has disseminated reports on updates at Fukushima, but the source of the information is the Japanese government,” Matsumura said. “If the Japanese government chooses to remain opaque in its dealings, then the IAEA reports will be useless.”
The IAEA had to deflect criticism from its members for weeks following the Fukushima disaster because it refused to analyze risks from the meltdown. The U.S. NRC provided more risk assessments than the IAEA by independently widening the areas it labeled dangerous around the reactors beyond where Japanese officials set limits.
The Fukushima meltdowns have already spread more radiation over Japan than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined, Arnie Gundersen, a U.S. nuclear engineer who testified before the NRC on the Fukushima meltdowns, wrote in an e-mail. The stricken plant is expected to be brought under control before the end of the year, according to Tepco.