Confab talks up safety in Fukushima

Kyodo

A high-level international gathering on nuclear safety began Saturday in Fukushima Prefecture, with participants reiterating their determination to make atomic energy safe and touching on the need to assist countries newly seeking to build nuclear power plants.

At the outset of the Fukushima Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety, hosted by Japan and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said the government is eager to share the lessons of the Fukushima No. 1 crisis. He also sought cooperation from countries around the world for the decades-long process of scrapping the three reactors that suffered core meltdowns.

“No country in the world has ever experienced such an operation. . . . It is necessary to bring together and utilize domestic and overseas knowhow,” Genba said, adding Japan intends to accept an IAEA expert mission next year to tap its knowledge about the decommissioning work.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, who delivered a speech after Genba, noted that important steps have been taken to make atomic power stations safer since the crisis began in March last year, but added it will take many years before the world fully understands exactly what went wrong at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant.

“In the meantime, we must maintain the momentum and implement all possible improvements to nuclear safety to help ensure that such accidents do not occur again,” Amano said.

The three-day event, organized in the city of Koriyama, brings together representatives of around 120 countries and international organizations, including some 30 ministerial-level officials, the Foreign Ministry said.

The day’s plenary session ended with the release of a statement summarizing the participants’ conviction that there should be “no complacency in safety matters.”

The statement meanwhile welcomed the progress seen in implementing the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, which calls on all signatory nations to undertake safety assessments of their nuclear plants and to reinforce the effectiveness of regulatory bodies.

With atomic energy remaining a crucial source of electricity for many countries, including developing economies, the statement also emphasized the importance of assisting member states embarking on civil nuclear power programs in their development of infrastructure and human resources.

To enhance emergency preparedness and response, participation was encouraged in an IAEA network that aims to facilitate the provision of requests for international assistance, so that radioactive contamination from a major nuclear accident can be minimized.

The Fukushima disaster, triggered by the 9.0-magnitude quake and 15-meter tsunami that annihilated much of the northeast coast on March 11, 2011, revealed how Japan, which had long boasted of possessing the world’s safest nuclear power stations, was in fact extremely ill-prepared for a crisis of such severity. Three reactors at the No. 1 power plant experienced meltdowns after losing key cooling functions amid a power outage.

Around 160,000 residents of Fukushima Prefecture are still living as evacuees in temporary accommodations due to the levels of radioactive fallout spewed by the three crippled reactors, and the continuing safety risks. It took nine months for the government to declare that the wrecked plant had been brought under control, though some contest this claim.

Regretting that safety was neglected under a regulatory setup that allowed the promoters and previous regulators of nuclear energy to develop cozy ties, the government in September launched a new independent industry watchdog, the Nuclear Regulation Authority, following months of bickering in the Diet.

In his speech, Genba said Japan will also promptly host an IAEA regulatory review mission as soon as the NRA crafts new safety standards for the country’s commercial nuclear reactors, all but two of which remain offline due to safety concerns among the public.