08/23/2011 02:55 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

IAEA seeks safety checks in all atomic energy states

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. atomic agency will carry out at least one safety inspection in each country with nuclear power plants in the coming three years under proposals aimed at preventing any repeat of Japan's nuclear crisis.

The draft document from the International Atomic Energy Agency, a revised version of a plan presented to IAEA member states this month, outlined a series of steps to help improve global nuclear safety after the Fukushima accident in March.

"The robust implementation of this action plan with full transparency will be of utmost importance and will represent a significant step forward in strengthening nuclear safety," the draft, obtained by Reuters Tuesday, said.

Diplomats said the plan sought to map out a middle way between countries which have advocated stricter and binding international rules and those which want to keep safety as an issue strictly for national authorities.

"This is middle ground," one European diplomat said of the draft. "It is still not the most ambitious of documents."

On the key issue of international safety inspections the text was amended, following feedback from member state diplomats last week, to spell out that all IAEA states with nuclear power programs would host such expert missions.

But at the same time a numerical target of the U.N. agency reviewing 10 percent of the world's reactors in three years was taken out, and IAEA missions would still take place upon a country's invitation.

One nuclear expert said the text watered down ideas put forward by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano in June that the U.N. body could conduct random inspections of the world's 440 reactors -- a suggestion that was not included in the draft.

"Member states have weakened Amano's June proposals to strengthen the agency and boost its credibility on safety," the expert, who declined to be named, said.


Today, some 29 states have nuclear energy, with most reactors in the United States, France, Japan and Russia.

The new IAEA draft said that each member state with nuclear power plants would "host at least one IAEA Operational Safety Review Team (OSART) mission during the coming three years, with the initial focus on older nuclear power plants."

The previous version said the U.N. body would organize safety reviews of one power unit in ten over three years, without specifying that all nuclear states would be covered.

Amano told Reuters last week he hoped the agency's annual member state gathering would endorse the action plan next month.

While stressing that atomic energy safety was primarily a national responsibility, the action plan signaled a strengthened role for the IAEA and its expert missions to review compliance with international reactor and regulatory standards.

The Vienna-based agency would conduct assessments every ten years of national regulatory bodies, it said, an apparent bid to make sure they were sufficiently independent and resourced.

Japan's crisis has prompted a rethink of energy policy worldwide, underlined by Germany's decision to close all its reactors by 2022 and Italy's vote to ban nuclear power for decades.

Three reactors at the Japanese complex went into meltdown when power and cooling functions failed, causing radiation leakage and forcing the evacuation of some 80,000 people.

Japanese officials have come under fire for their handling of the emergency and the authorities have admitted that lax standards and poor oversight contributed to the accident.

There are no mandatory, international nuclear safety regulations now, only IAEA recommendations which national regulators are in charge of enforcing.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)