IAEA says nuclear power safer 1 year after Fukushima

VIENNA Fri Mar 9, 2012 11:15am EST

VIENNA (Reuters) - Nuclear power is safer than it was a year ago when an earthquake and a tsunami hit the area around the Fukushima nuclear plant, the U.N. atomic energy chief said on Friday, but Greenpeace said no lessons had been learnt.

In a statement issued ahead of Sunday's first anniversary of the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986, Director General Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said meaningful steps had been taken to strengthen global nuclear safety since Fukushima.

"Nuclear safety is stronger than it was a year ago," he said. "We know what went wrong and we have a clear course of action to tackle those causes - not only in Japan, but anywhere in the world."

Amano added: "Now we have to keep up the momentum. Complacency can kill."

The Fukushima tragedy was triggered on March 11, 2011, when a powerful undersea earthquake unleashed a deadly tsunami that left 19,000 people dead or missing. It also smashed into the coastal power plant causing a series of catastrophic failures at the facility.

Images of the stricken plant and the enormous devastation the tsunami wrought across Japan shook public confidence in nuclear power and forced the nuclear industry to launch a campaign to defend its safety record.

After Fukushima, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium decided to move away from nuclear power altogether and build up alternative renewable energy sources instead.

Nearly 50 other countries who had been operating, building or planning to construct new nuclear plants continue to rely on nuclear energy however, even though they face higher costs.

The IAEA statement said it recognized last year's accident was a jolt to the nuclear industry, regulators and governments, but it said much could be done to prevent a repeat.

"It was triggered by a massive force of nature, but it was existing weaknesses of design regarding defense against natural hazards, regulatory oversight, accident management and emergency response that allowed it to unfold as it did," the IAEA said.

Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat, added: "Human failings such as these are not unique to Japan ... Countries around the world are searching out the weak links in their own systems, and taking action to strengthen them."

But environmental group Greenpeace, which opposes nuclear energy on safety grounds, said that "no real lessons" appeared to have yet been learnt from Fukushima.

"Industry and politicians around the world quickly (carried out) so called stress tests only to conclude that no single reactor in the world is unsafe and needs to close," said Jan Beranek, head of Greenpeace's nuclear campaign.

"No doubt even Fukushima Daiichi would have passed those tests," he said in an e-mail to Reuters. The IAEA "even said that the main problem was how to restore public confidence - instead of looking into how to better protect people. This must change, or (the) next nuclear disaster is inevitable."

(The story was refiled to clarify in paragraph 5 that deaths are from tsunami/earthquake)

(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Andrew Osborn)