IAEA pledge to boost nuclear regulation, safety standards

More than 100 countries will pledge to strengthen national nuclear regulators and improve safety standards at a high-profile meeting this month called after Japan's atomic disaster, a draft declaration showed.
 
According to a text obtained by Reuters ahead of a June 20-24 ministerial conference at the UN nuclear agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency will start a process aimed at boosting global nuclear safety. However, the Vienna-based body acknowledges that member countries are split over the issue of mandatory international rules and whether a body like the IAEA should have powers to enforce them.
 
The draft declaration said ministers would "emphasize the importance of implementing enhanced national and international measures to ensure that the highest and most robust levels of nuclear safety are in place." They would also "consider the possibility of strengthening the international legal framework" for nuclear safety, it added, without giving specific examples. The text stressed the need to improve national and international emergency preparedness.
 
One European diplomat who took part in negotiating the text said his expectations for the IAEA-hosted meeting were "slowly declining ... It is slightly depressing me."
 
Most of the IAEA's 151 members are expected to attend the biggest such gathering so far in the wake of the world's most serious nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Group of Eight leaders agreed at a summit in France last month that more stringent nuclear safety rules were needed.
 
Russia, which has an important domestic nuclear industry, wants to make the UN agency's safety standards compulsory -- a view which many other countries are unlikely to agree with. "There is a big debate," said another European diplomat.
 
Currently there are no mandatory, international nuclear safety regulations, only IAEA recommendations which national regulators are in charge of enforcing. A senior IAEA official last week said its standards should be given "more weight."
 
The draft ministerial declaration said the agency's safety standards "should be continuously reviewed, strengthened and implemented as broadly and effectively as possible," but it made no mention of making them binding. Ministers would "commit to strengthening the central role of the IAEA in promoting international cooperation and in coordinating international efforts to strengthen global nuclear safety"
 
The text, which called on IAEA chief Yukiya Amano to prepare an action plan on nuclear safety, did not explicitly say whether the UN agency should have wider enforcement powers. Countries within the 27-nation European Union have already agreed to proceed with stress tests on the region's 143 reactors and the bloc has called for them to be carried out worldwide.
 
The draft declaration urged countries to conduct "comprehensive risk and safety assessments of their nuclear power plants in a transparent manner." It also stressed "the benefits of strengthened and high quality independent international safety expert assessments" of national regulatory frameworks, emergency preparedness and nuclear power plant operations.
 
Earlier this month, Japan said lax standards and poor oversight had contributed to the Fukushima accident. It promised to set up an independent nuclear regulatory agency, breaking the long-criticized ties between the Japanese utility industry and officials overseeing its safety.
 
This was a point also underlined in the draft, which said ministers would "commit to further strengthening the authority, competence and resources of national regulatory authorities ... and to continuously ensure their effective independence."
 

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