The IAEA and the Nuclear Crisis at Fukushima

By Olli Heinonen

By Olli Heinonen

The Power & Policy Fellows’ Forum

By Olli Heinonen

Senior Fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; former Deputy Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and head of Department of Safeguards

As the human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s northeastern coast unfolds, Japan continues its battle to bring its nuclear power plant at Fukushima under control. For 10 days,  facility operators and technicians have worked tirelessly to cool the six stricken nuclear reactors and prevent a further spiral of fuel meltdown and release of harmful radioactivity. The work is being carried out under extremely difficult circumstances.

Fighting on several fronts under unpredictable circumstances, the Japanese have had to contend with power shortages, develop improvised methods and equipment, fight sudden fires at the various spent fuel ponds, and protect personnel deployed at the nuclear sites against over-exposure to radiation. This is not to mention the food and water contamination of the surrounding affected areas, psychological trauma, and rebuilding exercise that will continue to preoccupy Japan in the near and medium term. The stoicism, determination and fortitude the Japanese people have exhibited throughout the crisis has been worthy of admiration.

While events at Fukushima have been covered by the media around the clock, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is responsible for promoting nuclear safety around the world, has been little heard from. Its initial reports provided scant and at times contradictory information from Japanese sources. While the IAEA has stated that it was hampered by lack of official information from Japan, this has nonetheless prompted analysts to question the efficacy of the Agency. Others have noted that it took a week for the IAEA to dispatch a team to Japan to gather more facts on the ground.

The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials measure radiation exposure at a park in Tokyo, March 19, 2011, after last week's earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo)

The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials measure radiation exposure at a park in Tokyo, March 19, 2011, after last week's earthquake and tsunami. (AP Photo)

Whatever the reasons for the slow start, many of us will agree that when it comes to nuclear safety concerns, there needs to be clear, timely, reliable and transparent information available. Information access is particularly important as crises unfold. In the case of Fukushima, information sharing was critical when governments and embassies on the ground were searching for answers to do their own assessments and protect their own citizens.

When reports of the damaged nuclear power plants at Fukushima emerged, many countries looked immediately to the IAEA for more details. This was understandable as one of the IAEA statutory functions is to establish safety standards to protect the health, life and property in the use of nuclear energy. The IAEA draws up safety standards guidelines, hosts conferences relating to nuclear safety issues, and provides services to its member states that include peer-reviews such as the Operational Safety Review Team and the Safety Evaluation of Fuel Cycle Facilities During Operation review. Such on-site missions evaluate the safety practices at visited sites and provide relevant recommendations for improvements.

However, these reviews are voluntary and largely conducted at the invitation of the state. IAEA safety standards are also not legally binding. Safety concerns and mishaps have occurred in the past at various nuclear power plants

Fukushima should be a wake-up call to re-evaluate and strengthen the role of the IAEA in boosting nuclear safety, including its response mechanism.

If we look at the IAEA’s emergency response system, its obligation is to act in a timely, appropriate and efficient manner to any nuclear situation that may have actual or potential radiological consequences to health, property and the environment. In other words, the IAEA system should be in a position to respond to radiation safety and/or security-related requests from its member states and the wider public.

This means that the IAEA’s role in dispensing advice should go beyond simply relaying information provided by the affected state. While information provided by the state is essential, it is of fundamental importance that the IAEA assess such information independently, relying on other sources of information and from its own findings on the ground. The Agency should also clearly state publicly what it knows, what information is currently lacking, and why such information is needed in order for its member states and the public to better decide on further courses of action.

Let us not forget that the strength of the IAEA is its access to information, people, sites and countries. This, together with its expertise in-house or drawn from its member states, provides the means for the IAEA to deal with emergency response situations. A response, above all, must be timely, informative and instructive in dealing with the unfolding crisis. This includes coordinating efforts to identify capacity assistance where needed, providing rolling independent assessments, and the necessary guidance and technical support for the rescue teams being sent.

The wider lesson drawn from the crisis at Fukushima is that nuclear disasters and threats affect everyone. Radioactivity does not stop at national borders. Nuclear and radioactive materials can be stolen if not properly secured. Nuclear proliferation continues to be an issue of grave concern.

In all of these instances, the IAEA has a key role to play to ensure that nuclear power is used safely, securely and for peaceful purposes. Lessons will have to be learned, events will have to be reviewed, and the scope of current mechanisms bolstered to address the public’s legitimate concerns about the use of nuclear power.

Before joining the Belfer Center as a senior fellow in August 2010, Olli Heinonen spent 27 years at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Heinonen spent the last five years as Deputy Director General of the IAEA, and head of its Department of Safeguards. A native of Finland, Heinonen studied radiochemistry and completed his Ph.D dissertation in nuclear material analysis at the University of Helsinki.


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