Concern aired on nuclear safety

Manila Bulletin

VIENNA, Austria (DPA)- The accident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant has raised concern that current international treaties on atomic energy safety may be too soft, but experts say an overhaul of the framework set up after the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago, is unlikely.

They say it is more likely that safety standards that have been developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be upgraded, even if they are not made obligatory.

"That is not an ideal solution, but the question is what is realistically possible," said Guenther Handl, an environmental law professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Five months after the April 26, 1986 accident at Chernobyl, governments around the world adopted the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, obliging countries to inform and help each other.

The Convention on Nuclear Safety followed in 1994, setting broad standards.

Governments were able to act quickly because of concerns about the safety of many other Soviet-built reactors.

But the urgency of bringing Communist countries on board in the aftermath of Chernobyl meant the nuclear safety convention lacked any enforcement mechanism, said Odette Jankowitsch, a Vienna-based consultant and former senior legal officer at the IAEA.

"It became a compromise convention," she said. "The stricter the principles are, the less likely it becomes that governments join such a convention," she said.

Experts told the German Press Agency dpa that the nuclear industry and governments would not want to give the IAEA a bigger say on safety matters, which currently rest squarely in national hands.

"What I'm hearing from people in the industry is that they are profoundly unsettled by the prospect that someone would become the arbiter of nuclear safety," said Mark Hibbs, an expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

There seems to be more agreement among countries on the need to somehow enhance the flow of information in the event of a nuclear accident, a problem underlined by the Chernobyl disaster, which Soviet leaders failed to acknowledge immediately.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has repeatedly urged Japanese authorities to speed up the flow of information after a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima 1 power plant last month.

But that does not change the fact that the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident asks the IAEA to send information only to capitals, not to inform the public directly.

What seems more realistic than a change to the conventions, experts say, is a review of the non-binding standards that the IAEA has been drawing up and revising over the years.

None of the experts who spoke to dpa said that Japan has not been adhering to these standards, but they suggested areas where risks could be reduced, given the experiences at Fukushima.

Handl said that water-based cooling of spent nuclear fuel should be substituted as much as possible by other methods that cannot fail so easily as in Japan, where the tsunami crippled Fukushima's cooling systems.

Existing guidelines on calculating combined risks, such as an earthquake and tsunami, should also be sharpened, he said.

"I think the Japanese made the mistake of not having looked at both risks in combination," he said.

The question of where to build and operate reactors, especially in tsunami-prone regions, will also have to be revisited, Hibbs said.

Nuclear and non-nuclear countries will have opportunities to ponder safety issues at a ministerial-level IAEA meeting on Fukushima in June and at an extraordinary Safety Convention conference in August next year.

The outcomes are likely to be less than revolutionary, even though IAEA chief Amano cautiously indicated in March that the agency should play a bigger role in making nuclear energy safe.

"We need to be realistic. We need to see the needs of member states," Amano told reporters.