Tuesday, March 15, 2011

UN's nuclear watchdog IAEA under fire over response to Japanese disaster

IAEA and Japanese secretary-general accused of ignoring lessons of Chernobyl and letting firms cut corners at Fukushima

Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
Tuesday 15 March 2011

Inside Fukushima Members of the Fukushima assembly observing operations at the No 1 plant last year. Critics say the IAEA allowed the plant to cut corners. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP
The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has come under fire for its response to Japan's nuclear crisis and its record in monitoring nuclear safety.

The scrutiny has focused on the agency's secretary general, Yukiya Amano, a Japanese diplomat who got the job in 2009 after energetic lobbying by Tokyo. Amano and his team have been blamed for long delays in issuing updates on the disaster at Fukushima.

Nuclear officials argued that the fault lay not so much with the agency in Vienna as with its largely toothless mandate, which leaves it dependent on member states for voluntary compliance and control of information.

The fiercest criticism came from a former Soviet nuclear expert who helped organise the clean-up after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Iouli Andreev said that corporations had deliberately ignored the lessons of Chernobyl in the pursuit of profit and had been abetted by the negligence of the agency.

"After Chernobyl, all the force of the nuclear industry was directed to hide this event, for not creating damage to their reputation. The Chernobyl experience was not studied properly because who has money for studying? Only industry. But industry doesn't like it," Andreev told Reuters news agency.

He once ran the Soviet Spetsatom agency involved in the Chernobyl clean-up. He now teaches on nuclear safety and has served as an adviser to Austria's environment ministry.

Andreev said that in order to cut costs, spent fuel rods at Fukushima had been too closely stacked in pools near the nuclear reactors. One of those pools caught fire, dispersing radioactivity into the atmosphere.

"The Japanese were very greedy and they used every square inch of the space. But when you have a dense placing of spent fuel in the basin, you have a high possibility of fire if the water is removed from the basin," Andreev said.

He said the agency was too close to the corporations to enforce standards properly. "This is only a fake organisation because every organisation which depends on the nuclear industry – and the IAEA depends on the nuclear industry – cannot perform properly ... It always will try to hide the reality."

Officials in Vienna said the criticism implied a misunderstanding of the agency's role. They said that it had a mandate to demand inspections and judge compliance when illicit nuclear weapons programmes are suspected, as in Iran and Syria. On nuclear safety, on the other hand, the agency does not have the right of inspection and cannot criticise member states' nuclear power industries. "The agency can facilitate the creation of a standard but cannot enforce that standard," an official said.

Amano was also criticised at a press conference for his agency's slowness in informing the public. The agency's briefings have frequently been several hours behind press reports in Japan. However, nuclear officials with knowledge of the agency's workings said that according to an internationally agreed convention on early notification of an accident, agency officials had to verify any information they disclosed with the country in which the incident had taken place. Over the past few days, they said, that had meant sending press releases to Tokyo for approval and often waiting hours for a response.

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