Safety checks 'must be improved to prevent another Fukushima'

The world's 440 operating atomic reactors must be given safety checks within the next 18 months in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the head of the UN's nuclear safety agency said yesterday.

Checks by national authorities should then be followed by international inspections, said Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to prevent any repeat of Japan's reactor catastrophe in March, which has prompted a major loss of confidence in nuclear power around the world. Germany and Italy have both signalled that they will pull out of atomic power production.

Opening a ministerial meeting in Vienna on strengthening safety standards after Fukushima, Mr Amano, also a senior Japanese diplomat, said that after Fukushima, "business as usual is not an option". He said: "Thorough and transparent national risk assessments should be made of all nuclear power plants in the world. They should focus on safety margins against extreme natural hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and floods. This could be done within 12 to 18 months."

Nuclear safety would remain a national responsibility, he said, and governments would still have the main task of testing, if only in theory, whether reactor systems could withstand various stresses, such as the earthquake and tsunami, which overwhelmed the Fukushima reactors' cooling systems and led to significant radiation leaks into the atmosphere.

But Mr Amano made clear that he wanted the UN agency to play a greater role, and suggested its experts should be allowed to carry out random safety reviews of atomic power plants.

"Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power has been badly shaken," he said in a speech to ministers and regulators from the UN body's 151 member states. "However, nuclear power will remain important for many countries, so it is imperative that the most stringent safety measures are implemented everywhere." At the moment there are no mandatory, international nuclear safety regulations, only IAEA recommendations, which national regulators are in charge of enforcing. While some IAEA member countries at the meeting want any new safety regime to be mandatory, most prefer regulations to remain voluntary. But Mr Amano pointed out that if the IAEA cannot enforce safety standards, those rules will be only as good as the way they are enforced by IAEA nations.

"Even the best safety standards are useless unless they are actually implemented," he said.

As it was "not a realistic proposition" for the IAEA to review all the world's 440 working nuclear reactors in just a few years, Mr Amano said he was proposing a review system "based on random selection".

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