To prevent disasters, nuclear safety official advocates for "very strong safety culture"

10:44, April 13, 2011      

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To better prevent an accident like the current crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, there must be a high regard given to matters of safety, an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has told Xinhua in a recent interview.

"What is needed is that whatever development of nuclear energy cannot be seen without a very strong safety culture, with a very strong safety authority with very strong safety standards," said Denis Flory, the IAEA deputy director-general and head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security. "So these are two aspects which must go hand-in-hand and which must go together with a very strong transparency process."

Disaster struck northeastern Japan on March 11, when a 9.0- magnitude earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami, hit the country's coast, killing over 13,000 and causing the disappearance of more than 14,000.

The considerable damage caused by this natural disaster to buildings and infrastructure extended to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Over the past month, the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), has been struggling to restore essential cooling systems at the plant and prevent further leakage of radiation.

Flory, who was reached by phone, said that a succession of extreme events, like the massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami that occurred in Japan, could only be foreseen and prepared for with a perspective based in science.

"Safety is based on science and there needs to be more science in the future to identify such possibilities and then to put in place emergency preparedness and response measures so that even if such succession happens, even if it goes beyond what was designed, then also you have mitigation measures which prevent the release of radioactive materials in the environment and to the public," he said.

Flory noted that the IAEA has developed standards for nuclear power and earthquakes.

"Depending on the probability, the possible strength of earthquakes in a given place, then you must adapt the design, and what your standards are about it, how to take in account what happened in history, how given the knowledge about past earthquakes and about the geology, how to take all of that in account and develop then the design basis for the nuclear power plant and also how to take all of that into account in the siting of the nuclear power plant," he explained.

He added that there can be a measure of unpredictability when it comes to seismic events.

"There are places where people have not seen earthquakes for a thousand years and then that maybe changes and you may someday find an earthquake," he said. "So what has to be done is -- again based on science and a good sound basis -- to develop methodology and apply these methodologies, and this is what we write in our safety standards."

Flory said he believes that since Fukushima, more and more people have considered that strong safety measures are "the only way forward" when it comes to developing nuclear energy.

There are many ideas circulating about how to improve the nuclear safety regime, although none of them have been adopted formally, he said.

"It means strengthening the safety standards, it means having more compulsory safety standards," Flory said of the objectives of some proposals for change.

Currently, the IAEA's nuclear safety standards are not compulsory for member states. However, if a member state is receiving IAEA technical cooperation support, it is required to adopt the agency's safety standards.

Flory explained that another idea that may be on the table is " having international peer review missions to the safety authorities and also to the nuclear power plants in a more regular and sort of compulsory way for all authorities and for all nuclear power plants."

International teams to carry out peer reviews of nuclear safety have been deployed, with coordination by the IAEA, but some have floated ideas of making these reviews mandatory and more frequent.

It will likely take some time to come to lasting agreements on how nuclear safety must develop, but Flory said that a ministerial conference planned for June will mark the launch of a process of building stronger standards.

On June 20-24, member states and the IAEA will convene a High- Level Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety, where the aftermath of the Fukushima accident and its implications for the future of the industry's safety rules will be a high priority.

"This process will then show the way how to strengthen standards and how to make sure that all authorities, all nuclear power plants have peer reviews from time to time," Flory said.

Source: Xinhua
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