Saturday, April 23, 2011

IAEA- The Way to go after Fukushima.

By T.P.Sreenivasan

A distressed Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),who helplessly witnessed a nuclear catastrophe in his own homeland with no authority or capability to help, has invited the foreign ministers of member countries to Vienna in June to devise ways and means to strengthen the safety role of the Agency. Normally, conclaves of the IAEA are gatherings of top nuclear scientists and Vienna based diplomats, who claim monopoly of wisdom on matters nuclear and insist that the greatest danger to the world arises from proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond the designated nuclear weapon powers. But this time, the invitees are policy makers, who have to think out of the box to rid the world of the scourge of nuclear accidents.Safety is too important a subject to be left to those with vested interests.

Perhaps, the June meeting may eventually be attended only by the scientists, now that the horrors of Fukushima have gone off the television screens and comfort is being sought in the thought that no one has died of radiation as against the thousands that perished on account of the earthquakes and tsunami. The two workers who were found dead in the reactors may have, after all, died of falling debris.Like the Three Mile island and Chernobyl, Fukushima will fade into history as another accident that did not need any more attention than its predecessors.But it will be unconscionable for the June meeting to just pay lip service to the safety mantra and move on with the business as usual in the comfort that God is in his heaven and all is well with the world.

The world seems to have long forgotten that the IAEA was created to harness atoms for peace safely without diverting them for military use.The subsequent emergence of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) turned the Agency into a proliferation watchdog, with much of its resources devoted to the safeguards aspect of its activities. Rightly did the Director General lament that the IAEA was not a safety watchdog and it had no choice but to be on response mode when a meltdown took place in Fukushima. It took several days before the IAEA was given any responsibility. It had no source other than the operators to tell them about the seriousness of the situation.

Prevention of accidents should be the highest priority for the IAEA. Its role should start from the designing of reactors and continue through installation and operation. Presently, such responsibilities rest with private companies, for whom profitability is paramount. Even state authorities give importance to efficiency and cost rather than safety. Apart from setting standards, the IAEA should be involved in selecting venues to ensure that the places, which are vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis are excluded. It should be mandatory to involve the IAEA at every stage and the IAEA should, in turn, be given the resources necessary to respond to requests immediately and meaningfully. Peer reviews organised under the aegis of the Agency must also be mandatory for member states to accept.

Should an accident occur, the IAEA should be instantly involved in minimizing the danger of radiation and in defending the population against its evil impact. Questions of sovereignty should be set aside as in the case of humanitarian intervention in the event of internal conflicts.To equip the IAEA to perform such functions, there should be a team at the disposal of the Director General, which can be deployed at short notice, much like the rapid deployment forces maintained by Governments.

When a group of eminent persons formulated a vision for the IAEA in 2020, the focus was on a nuclear renaissance, which seemed to be in the offing. Today, the priority is to restore confidence in the people, particularly in the vicinity of reactors. The Governments have little credibility in this matter and the IAEA should fill the gap.

The June conference should restore the balance originally envisaged between promotion of nuclear energy, safety and safeguards. The overwhelming importance given to safeguards has deprived the Agency of its safety dimension.Nuclear power will inevitably lose much of its sheen in the aftermath of Fukushima. Only after safety is ensured can the IAEA engage in promotion of nuclear power.The IAEA should become as much a watchdog of safety as it is of non-proliferation.

The world, still in the throes of the nightmare of Fukushima, looks to the Vienna conclave with hope and expectations.Its success lies in enabling the IAEA to play its role in preventing nuclear accidents and assisting countries to battle the aftermath of accidents, if any. The future of nuclear power will depend on the confidence that that the IAEA can eventually instill in humanity.

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