UPDATE 2-Stronger nuclear safety standards needed-IAEA chief

Mon Mar 21, 2011 11:54am EDT

Related Topics

* IAEA no "nuclear safety watchdog" - Amano

* But standards need to be strengthened

* Says nuclear power will remain important option

(Recasts with nuclear safety comments)

By Sylvia Westall and Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA, March 21 (Reuters) - International nuclear safety standards will need to be strengthened after the crisis at a Japanese atomic power plant triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, the U.N. nuclear agency chief said on Monday.

But Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), acknowledged it could be difficult to make such rules mandatory.

Safety issues are the responsibility of individual countries and the IAEA is not a "nuclear safety watchdog", he said.

But "in some areas, certainly, the standards should be strengthened", he told reporters. For example, it should be assessed whether current recommendations regarding major natural events such as tsunamis were sufficient or not.

Japan's emergency at its crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant has also put the spotlight on how the IAEA is equipped to deal with a crisis that could have cross-border implications.

Serving 151 member states, the Vienna-based agency is tasked with promoting the safe and peaceful use of nuclear power but lacks the ability to enforce safety standards it recommends -- unlike its powers to curb possible atomic weapons proliferation.

Asked whether he believed the IAEA's safety recommendations should be obligatory, Amano said this would not be easy.

"It depends on the member states' intentions and I know already views are very different," he said. "It is not like an accident happens, let's change the standards and all will be better, it is not so simple."

Amano, a Japanese national, earlier told the IAEA's 35-nation board that the agency's role in nuclear safety and standards may need to be re-examined, without elaborating.

NUCLEAR STILL "IMPORTANT" ENERGY OPTION

The IAEA has faced criticism for failing to provide fast information at the beginning of the disaster to both its member states and the public.

The agency had said it was reliant on the information given to it by Japan, and Amano travelled to Tokyo last week to press authorities there to give his office faster and more data.

"Lessons will need to be learned and the IAEA is where that discussion should take place. A thorough review of the accident will be necessary, in which peer review will have an important role to play," Amano told the closed-door meeting.

"The current international emergency response framework needs to be reassessed," he said, adding it was largely designed following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Japan's nuclear situation remained very serious and high levels of radioactivity had been detected in the area of the plant, but there was no doubt it would "effectively overcome" the crisis, Amano said.

He spoke after engineers managed to rig power cables to all six reactors at the Fukushima complex and started a water pump at one of them to reverse the overheating that has triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.

Some workers were later evacuated from one of the most badly damaged reactors when smoke briefly rose from the site.

Amano said some countries were now reviewing their nuclear energy plans in view of events in Japan. But "nuclear power will remain an important and viable option for many countries as a stable and clean source of energy", he said. (Editing by Andrew Roche)

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