Analysis: Under pressure, U.N. nuclear body seeks safety role

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N. atomic agency may lack the diplomatic muscle to lead the world’s response to Japan’s nuclear crisis — a weakness exposed by a French initiative on Thursday to launch a global review of industry rules.

Just a day after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it would host a ministerial conference in June on strengthening global nuclear safety, France went one better by announcing plans for its own meeting on the issue in May.

Declaring it would lay the groundwork for the IAEA meeting on June 20-24, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he wanted G20 nuclear industry officials to hold talks in Paris to “define international nuclear safety standards.”

It underlined the fact that it is national authorities — not the Vienna-based IAEA — which are mainly responsible for safety related to the operation of atomic power plants.

But one European diplomat in the Austrian capital said the U.N. body, not the Group of 20 leading economies, should be where such issues are hammered out because it groups more than 150 member states.

“There is a danger that it will damage the IAEA’s ability to deal with these issues. I suspect that this will not be appreciated on the 28th floor,” he said, referring to the office of IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.

Japan’s emergency at its crippled Fukushima power plant — which is showing little sign of being brought under control — has put the spotlight on how the U.N. agency is equipped to handle an accident with possible cross-border implications.

Amano this week said there must be “robust follow-up” work in ensuring that lessons were learnt from the disaster and that the IAEA was the best place for this.

WAKE-UP CALL?

But the U.N. body does not have the ability to enforce the safety recommendations it issues — unlike its powers to curb possible atomic weapons proliferation, where it takes the lead role in monitoring countries like Iran that some Western countries accuse of seeking a nuclear bomb.

It would need to tread a fine line in being seen to take action to ensure no repeat of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents — but without stepping on the toes of governments, wary of ceding national powers in regulating a strategic sector.

“Of course, you can always strengthen the agency in its function as an adviser,” one Western envoy said.

But “for traditional sovereignty reasons” many countries would want to remain responsible for safety issues, he said.

Other Western diplomats said countries aspiring to build nuclear power plants could be especially resistant to a stricter IAEA safety regime as they would fear it may limit their plans. Any enhanced safety mission for the agency may also raise questions from anti-nuclear activists and other critics, in view of its mandate to promote the safe and peaceful use of the atom.

The IAEA “obviously is close to the industry and I think that in itself makes them unsuitable to play this role,” said Rianne Teule, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace International.

In the first few days after the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged the Fukushima plant, the IAEA faced criticism for failing to provide fast information to its members and the public about the situation.

“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,” former senior IAEA official Olli Heinonen said.

Heinonen, who is now at Harvard University, said the accident “should be a wake-up call to re-evaluate and strengthen the role of the IAEA” in boosting nuclear safety.

IAEA “BEST VENUE”

But Malcolm Grimston, a senior research fellow at Imperial College in London, warned that handing greater authority to an agency like the IAEA could create two separate safety regimes.

“I don’t think you can impose a healthy safety culture from an international body. That needs to be home-grown,” he said.

Amano, a technocrat whose low-key demeanor contrasts with his more outspoken predecessor Mohamed ElBaradei, insisted last week that the IAEA was no “nuclear safety watchdog” and that it was member states which were responsible for such issues.

But he later made clear his determination for the IAEA to play a key role in efforts to draw wider lessons from the Fukishima accident, announcing the high-level meeting in June.

“I firmly believe that the IAEA is the best venue for follow-up on the Fukushima accident. We have the necessary expertise, extensive membership and can ensure transparency,” said Amano, a Japanese national.

He acknowledged, however, that it could be difficult to make IAEA safety standards obligatory.

Grimston said an enhanced IAEA safety role could muddy accountability and lead to disputes over international law.

“Can you imagine how the Iranians might respond to a critical report on Bushehr from an American-led IAEA team?” he said, referring to the Islamic state’s first and much-delayed atomic power plant.

(Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Analysis: Under pressure, U.N. nuclear body seeks safety role