Japan nuclear crisis sparks calls for IAEA reform

'We need to overhaul IAEA,' says Najmedin Meshkati of University of Southern California, repeating a call that is gaining traction amid the Japan nuclear crisis.

In this photo made off NHK TV video footage, a Japan Self-Defense Force helicopter dumps water over the No. 3 reactor of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Thursday, March 17.

The Japan nuclear crisis has exposed an industry that lacks sufficient oversight, say some scientists, leading for renewed calls to redefine the mandate of the UN nuclear watchdog so that it can better police nuclear power plants worldwide.

It's something that Najmedin Meshkati has highlighted for more than two decades. Now, his call to reform the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to better monitor nuclear power worldwide is getting new attention.

“We need to overhaul IAEA,” says Dr. Meshkati of University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who has visited Chernobyl’s nuclear accident site and studied nuclear plants and emergency responses worldwide, including in Japan.

Explosions or fires have hit three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (also known as Fukushima I), in addition to a fire at a spent fuel storage pond, a crisis begun when a March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out electricity at the plant. On Thursday, helicopters and military trucks began dumping cooling water on the spent fuel pond to cool the overheating nuclear rods.

As the blame game has many pointing fingers at the plant operator and at the national oversight agency, Meshkati is quick to both defend and criticize the Vienna-based IAEA.

“We need a stronger IAEA to do this work,” Meshkati says, echoing his 1993 testimony before the US Commission On Improving The Effectiveness Of The United Nations, when he said: “IAEA have neither a comprehensive research plan for nuclear power safety nor adequate resources to fund such a plan."

The problems with the agency are myriad, he says: It recommends safety standards, but member states are not required to comply; it promotes nuclear energy, but it also monitors nuclear use; it is the sole global organization overseeing the nuclear energy industry, yet it is also weighed down by checking compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Just as the 1996 crash of the ValuJet airliner spurred the Federal Aviation Administration to change its mandate to no longer promote safety in addition to policing the industry itself, Meshkati hopes the current crisis will push the UN to reform the IAEA's mandate and separate its roles.

“It needs to be changed by the board of governors,” he says, referring to the 35 member state policymaking body. “They need to come to the realization that business as usual is not working anymore.”

He is not the only one calling for such reform. Iouli Andreev, who as director of the Soviet Spetsatom clean-up agency helped in the efforts 25 years ago to clean up Chernobyl, has said the IAEA ignored lessons from that 1986 nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine.

“[It] is not interested in the concentration of attention on a possible accident in the nuclear industry,” he said, according to Reuters.

Others agree that the unfolding tragedy could spark reform in the industry, be it in the IAEA, the Japanese government, or the embattled plant operator.

“I think if you examine every industry and put it under a microscope you’d find that they are all cutting corners,” says Jerrold Bushberg, who directs programs in health physics at the University of California at Davis. “A lot of these things get defined by the incident.”

Japan nuclear crisis: A timeline of key events

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