JAPAN’s nuclear crisis has exposed huge weaknesses in how the world deals with such disasters, the UN nuclear chief says, urging changes in emergency responses worldwide.

Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also told a 35-nation IAEA board meeting in Vienna today that while the situation at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear site remains serious, “We are starting to see some positive developments.”  Smoke and steam again rose from damaged reactors today at Japan’s quake-hit Fukushima plant.

White steam-like vapour was seen rising from the number two reactor and what looked like white hazy smoke from the number three reactor, where efforts to spray water and restore electricity have temporarily stalled.   Japan has ordered the suspension of shipments of milk and certain vegetables including spinach from regions around the plant after abnormal radiation levels were found in the products.

Mr Amano used the Atomic Energy Agency meeting to answer calls on the establishment of mandatory safety standards at nuclear facilities.  At the moment, such rules are voluntary.  Mr Aamano said “there are some arguments” from board nations in favour – but others were against.  “The views are very different,” he said indicating that any reforms will be slow in coming and less than optimally effective because of the need to achieve board consensus.

Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex was crippled 10 days ago by a huge earthquake and massive tsunami, and Amano suggested that one area up for likely review is whether tsunami protection standards need to be strengthened.  But a comprehensive update of safety standards “needs more studies,” he said – again suggesting that any review will take time.

Inside the board meeting, he defended his agency’s performance since the crisis broke, emphasising that it is up to individual countries to focus on nuclear safety, with the IAEA only in an advisory role.

Glyn Davies, the chief US delegate to the IAEA, however, suggested the agency needed to do more, in a joint US-Canada statement that indicated agency board members will focus on more oversight of the organisation’s Japan performance.  He said the board will work with Amano “to ensure that this agency is bringing all of its resources to bear in addressing the current crisis.”

Since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the complex’s power supplies, Fukushima’s radioactive gas leaks have triggered the worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Senior Amano adviser Graham Andrew said it was too early to compare radiation dangers from the Chernobyl and Fukushima catastrophes. But he said radiation dose rates “only just above background” in dozens of Japanese cities 10 days after the Fukushima disaster were encouraging.

“In the case of Chernobyl there was at the heart of it a massive explosion that lifted the radioactivity from the plant high into the atmosphere and there was this fire from graphite which lasted a long time” – events lacking in Japan, he said.

He also said most of Japan’s radiation appeared to have been dispersed over the Pacific Ocean in quantities that are “tiny compared to the reservoir of natural radioactivity in the oceans … in a way that’s good news.”

Japanese and IAEA officials have suggested the emergency might be slowly abating. But attention is now focusing on the plant’s safety record, with Japan’s nuclear safety agency criticising the operator for repeatedly failing to inspect crucial equipment before the crisis broke.

Amano has repeatedly emphasised that the IAEA can only advise Japan and other member nations in such situations and has no mandate to enforce international or local regulations on nuclear safety.

“We are not a ‘nuclear safety watchdog’ and responsibility for nuclear safety lies with our member states,” he said, in comments from the closed meeting provided to media. “In contrast to the agency’s role in nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear safety measures are applied voluntarily by each individual country and our role is supportive.”

His comments on Monday contained no direct criticism of the way Tokyo has handled the emergency. Instead, Amano told the meeting: “I have confidence that the Japanese government will address public concerns properly.”

Still, he touched on international allegations that Japan has been too slow in releasing information about conditions at the site and the dangers facing the Japanese public, as he called for revamping the way nations deal with future nuclear emergencies.

The present ways of responding to such disasters were based on lessons learned from Chernobyl and reflect “the realities of the 1980s, not of the 21st century,” Amano said.

He acknowledged that his agency’s “role in nuclear safety may need to be re-examined, along with the role of our safety standards,” alluding to calls by member nations for a more muscular IAEA enforcement role.

“It is already clear that arrangements for putting international nuclear experts in touch with each other quickly during a crisis need to be improved,” he added.

Davies, the chief US delegate, also suggested a major nuclear review was needed, saying that the IAEA board planned to work with the agency and its member states to “act upon the lessons of this nuclear emergency.”

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