Thursday, April 07, 2011

Make the IAEA the Nuclear Safety Watchdog.

By T.P.Sreenivasan (From Vienna)

A glaring irony created by the United Nations is that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), its specialised body for promotion of atoms for peace has been located in the capital of a country, Austria, which is opposed to promoting nuclear power as a panacea for global energy shortage. Geneva would have been a natural choice, but Austria's offer of terms for the venue for the IAEA were attractive. The legend also has it that Homi Bhabha's love for western music was also a factor in the choice of Vienna. IAEA's gradual evolution as a nuclear watch dog and a regulatory rather than a promotional agency made it acceptable to Austria, which has been a champion of nonproliferation. The location of the IAEA in Vienna enabled Kurt Waldheim to locate an impressive array of other UN offices on the Danube.

Not only Japan,but also the IAEA is in crisis over the Fukushima disaster, which the IAEA still euphemistically calls a "nuclear accident". Safety,one of the main pillars of the Agency, is badly shaken and its credibility as a crisis management body in the event of a nuclear accident has been called into question. The open admission by its Director General, Yukio Amano, himself a Japanese, that the IAEA is not mandated to intervene either to prevent accidents or to force itself into emergency situations have exposed the chinks in the armour of the agency. The impression on the ground in Vienna is that the Agency has failed to play its role in a nuclear emergency, for which it was supposed to be prepared.

The IAEA has its own alphabetical soup to deal with nuclear emergencies. IEC (International Emergency Centre), ISSC (International Seismic Safety Centre), RANET (Response Assistance Network) and INES (International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) are only some of the acronyms being heard in Vienna these days as the emergency response capabilities, some of which were in existence right from the inception of the IAEA and others added after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. But a study of the daily updates given on the IAEA website have little to show for action or intervention in Fukushima. The updates simply reproduce the data given by the Japanese authorities, without any interpretation or conclusion on the part of the IAEA. For radiation levels, there are reports from neighbouring countries. Among these reports was one from Singapore, which was subsequently denied. Even the down-gradation of the situation from "very serious" to "serious" is attributed to the Japanese authorities.

The daily updates from March 11, 2011 onwards show that the IAEA went by the book in dealing with an unprecedented tragedy of gigantic proportions. The Director General expressed condolences on the accident and went into "full response mode" and did virtually nothing else. Even after three full days of fast developments of alarming proportions, the the IAEA kept saying on its website that "the IAEA stands ready to provide technical assistance of any kind" The approach was cautious, sensitive and aimed at not causing alarm or loss of faith in nuclear power. IAEA could only offer "good offices" and the Japanese Government took time to assign some responsibilities to the IAEA.

A brief visit by the DG himself to Tokyo a week after the accident and his report to the IAEA Board of Governors pointed to the limitations of the IAEA in dealing with nuclear emergencies.The IAEA was given only the responsibility to take radiation measurements and the identification of Japanese needs for a future environmental monitoring programme. The Agency neither sought, nor was it asked to do any fire fighting at Fukushima.

Amano's report to the Board on March 21 was frank and forthright. "I explained that we are not a "nuclear safety watchdog" and that responsibility for nuclear safety lies with our Member States. The IAEA acts as a hub for international cooperation, helping to establish safety standards and providing expert advice on best practices. But, in contrast to the Agency's role in nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear safety measures are applied voluntarily by each individual country and our role is supportive", he said. In an atmosphere of overwhelming sympathy for Japan, the Governors did not take issue with the Director General, but it was clear that, for the IAEA, the main priority was safeguards and not safety.

The founding fathers of the IAEA was acutely aware of the safety dimension of nuclear activities and had given considerable attention to safety, together with safeguards and nuclear applications. But over the years, the call for "balance" among the activities of the IAEA became taboo as the IAEA began to stress safeguards to the detriment of its other activities. The situation became more complex after 9/11 because of the new concerns of nuclear security. The new duties of security were assigned to the safety wing of the Agency, with consequent downgrading of safety concerns.

The Three Mile Island accident as well as Chernobyl had prompted reviews of the safety dimensions of the Agency. New institutions were created, but it was left to the initiative of member states to make use of them, subject to the availability of resources.For instance, the Operational Safety Review Team (OSART) Programme set up after the Three Mile Island accident is available for peer review, but some countries, including India, have declined offers by OSART of safety inspections. The former Director General raised this issue with me on my first call on him and reminded me of the importance of India accepting OSART missions in its own interest. But we have remained adamant about not using it on the ground that we have sufficient safety measures and that we are members of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), which was established after Chernobyl. OSART missions have been found useful by countries like France and it is time for us to reassess its value.

In response to the criticism that IAEA has been ineffective in dealing with nuclear emergencies, the IAEA has convened a High Level Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna from 20 to 24 of June, 2011. This is indeed a timely and important initiative, bringing together foreign ministers of IAEA member states, the UN Secretary General and the heads of international organisations that are participating in the Joint Radiation Emergency Management Plan, led by the IAEA. The Director General has already indicated the direction the Conference could take on the basis that "nuclear power will remain an important and viable option for many countries as a stable and clean source of energy." The Agency's role in safety will need to be reexamined and safety standards may have to be made more stringent. The current international emergency response framework must be reassessed. A rapid deployment team of nuclear experts may be placed at the disposal of the Director General for emergency consultations and action. The possibilities are endless.

The need for the hour is to make the IAEA "the nuclear saety watchdog", a role which may be more important, in many ways, than being a non-proliferation watchdog. It should be given the authority,the resources, including technical capability to intervene expeditiously as and when necessary. For India, this is a splendid opportunity to make imaginative suggestions and offers, which go beyond our present hesitation to use the IAEA mechanisms for safety. It is not enough for the leader of the Indian delegation to the conference to place his hand on his chest and say that our nuclear facilities are safe. We should open up our reports on previous incidents in our facilities and accept expert opinion, including the services of the OSART programme. With the separation of our civilian facilities for safeguards, there should be no objection to intrusive safety inspections. A large contingent of Indian experts are already in Vienna to attend the fifth review meeting of the contracting parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety.(April 4 to 14).The chance meeting of this body at this time should be fully exploited to test the waters before the June conference.

The IAEA is not the forum to raise issues relating to alternate sources of energy to replace nuclear power. But the reverberations for the persistent calls for the use of other forms of energy will certainly reverberate in the halls of the UN complex in Vienna.The Director General has gone on record as saying that "the worries of millions of people throughout the world about whether nuclear power is safe must be taken seriously." This is more than what some of the members of the IAEA are not prepared to say. The expectation of the nuclear renaissance will elude further as the focus shifts from appetite for energy to safety. The IAEA 2020 will be somewhat different from the picture envisaged in the report by the Eminent Persons Group, (Vision for the Future)of which I was the Executive Director. The IAEA should brace itself for change.


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