Despite Fukushima, IAEA sees global progress on nuclear safety

VIENNA Fri Aug 23, 2013 7:48am EDT

An aerial view shows workers wearing protective suits and masks working atop contaminated water storage tanks at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 20, 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo

An aerial view shows workers wearing protective suits and masks working atop contaminated water storage tanks at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, in this photo taken by Kyodo August 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kyodo

VIENNA (Reuters) - Japan may be suffering persistent problems with its wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant, but the U.N. atomic agency says "considerable progress" has been made globally in the past year to strengthen reactor safety.

In a report prepared for its annual member state gathering, the International Atomic Energy Agency said nearly all countries with nuclear plants had carried out safety "stress tests" to assess their ability to withstand so-called extreme events.

"As a result, many member states have introduced additional safety measures including mitigation of station blackout," said the document submitted ahead of the IAEA's September 16-20 General Conference for its 159 member states.

It was posted on the Vienna-based IAEA's website earlier this month, before Japan's nuclear crisis this week escalated to its worst level since a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant more than two years ago.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., Fukushima's operator, this week said a tank holding highly contaminated water leaked 300 tons of radioactive fluid.

ENERGY GROWTH

The 2011 Fukushima disaster was the worst such nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the 1986 Soviet reactor explosion which sent radioactive dust across much of Europe.

It put a question mark over the future of nuclear energy also elsewhere in the world. In Europe, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium decided to move away from nuclear to increase their reliance on renewable energy.

The IAEA has said it believes, however, that global use of nuclear energy could increase by as much as 100 percent by 2030 thanks to growth in Asia, including in China and India.

The IAEA, whose mission it is to promote "safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies", said on August 21 it viewed the situation at Fukushima seriously and was ready to provide assistance upon request.

The U.N. agency's report, evaluating the implementation of an IAEA nuclear safety action plan adopted by the General Conference in 2011 to help prevent any repeat of the Fukushima disaster, said progress had been made worldwide in key areas.

These included emergency preparedness, assessments of safety vulnerabilities of nuclear plants, and the protection of people and the environment from radiation.

"Since September 2012 ... considerable progress has been made worldwide in strengthening nuclear safety through the implementation of the action plan and of national action plans in member states," the report said.

A nuclear expert of environmental group Greenpeace - which opposes atomic energy on safety grounds - disputed the IAEA's upbeat view, saying "not much" had been achieved and calling for a fundamental change in how risks are assessed.

"As one of their (the IAEA's) objectives they have to promote nuclear energy, they cannot be impartial," Greenpeace International expert Rianne Teule told Reuters.

(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Alison Williams)

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