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9 December 2011 | Vienna, Austria
World Policy Conference

Statement at World Policy Conference - Plenary Session 3: Major Catastrophes and Global Governance

by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano

Mr. Chairman,

It is a pleasure for me to address this World Policy Conference.

As you know, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been very active in the past nine months in addressing the very serious accident that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In this session on Major Catastrophes and Global Governance, I will therefore focus in my brief remarks on the accident and its aftermath, as well as the lessons learned.

The accident at Fukushima Daiichi was caused by an earthquake and tsunami of unprecedented severity, which struck eastern Japan on 11 March. It was the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. It appears that the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi survived the initial earthquake largely intact, but safety systems and emergency backup generators were overwhelmed by the tsunami that struck shortly afterwards. Control over the reactors was lost and radioactivity was released. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes in the vicinity of the plant and have still not been able to return. It will still take time before the Japanese authorities and the plant operator restore full control over the reactors. The accident caused deep public anxiety throughout the world and damaged confidence in nuclear power.

The IAEA Incident and Emergency Centre went into action immediately, working around the clock to advise Japan and to share information with all Member States. I made a number of visits to Japan and dispatched expert teams to assist in areas such as radiological monitoring and food safety. An IAEA International Fact-Finding Expert Mission undertook a 10-day mission to Japan and produced a detailed report. The Agency also helped to channel the numerous offers of assistance which Japan received from countries around the world.

In June, I convened an IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna to pave the way for an enhanced post-Fukushima global nuclear safety framework. This represented a firm and coordinated political response to the accident in a way which did not happen after Chernobyl. The Conference adopted a Ministerial Declaration aimed at strengthening nuclear safety, emergency preparedness, and radiation protection of people and the environment worldwide. The Declaration formed the basis of the first ever comprehensive global Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, which was approved by the IAEA General Conference - the annual gathering of all Member States - in September.

The Action Plan represents a significant step forward in strengthening nuclear safety. Key elements include an agreement that all countries with nuclear power programmes will promptly undertake what have become known as "stress tests" of their nuclear power plants. The IAEA developed a methodology to help them do that. Emergency preparedness and response capabilities will be strengthened. The framework for expert peer reviews by the IAEA of operational safety at nuclear power plants is being strengthened. IAEA nuclear safety standards will be reviewed. The effectiveness of national nuclear regulatory bodies will be scrutinised. Good progress has already been made in implementing the Action Plan.

Mr. Chairman,

It should be noted that the IAEA does not have the same authority in the area of nuclear safety as we do in, for example, nuclear non-proliferation. Nuclear safety has always been - and it remains - the responsibility of individual countries. Nevertheless, the global response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident reflects a deeper realisation by governments throughout the world that nuclear safety is an issue that transcends borders and that effective international cooperation is vital. The IAEA - the only international organization with expertise in all aspects of nuclear energy - will play the leading role in shaping a safer nuclear future throughout the world.

The fact that such an accident was possible in an advanced industrial country reminded everyone that, when it comes to safety, nothing can be taken for granted. Nuclear safety will always be a work in progress. "Safety first" must be the watchword of everyone involved in nuclear power - plant operators, regulators, governments and the IAEA - as they go about their daily work.

As I told Ministers in September, the most important thing now is to fully implement the Action Plan and ensure transparency about the global effort to improve nuclear safety. It is actions, not words, that count. Firm and sustained commitment from all Member States will be required, both to improve nuclear safety at the plant level and to ensure that national regulators are genuinely independent and have the resources to do their jobs. As we move further into the post-accident phase, new lessons will continue to be learned and the Action Plan will be updated accordingly.

Despite the Fukushima Daiichi accident, nuclear power will remain an important option for many countries, although growth will be slower than we anticipated before the accident. The main reasons for the slowdown include Germany's accelerated phase-out, some shutdowns and delays in planned expansion in Japan, and temporary delays in expansion in some other countries. The latest IAEA projections show the number of operating nuclear reactors in the world is likely to increase by at least 90 by 2030, from the current total of 432. That is the conservative projection. Our higher projection suggests that as many as 350 new reactors could be added to the grid. Most of the growth will occur in countries that already have operating nuclear power plants, such as China and India. Many developing countries still plan to introduce nuclear power in the coming years. The factors contributing to increasing interest in nuclear power have not changed: these include increasing global demand for energy, as well as concerns about climate change, volatile fossil fuel prices and security of energy supply. It will be difficult for the world to achieve the twin goals of ensuring sustainable energy supplies and curbing greenhouse gases without ensuring that nuclear power remains an important part of the global energy mix.

As far as the situation at Fukushima Daiichi is concerned, the Japanese authorities and the operator are confident that so-called "cold shutdown" will be achieved by the end of the year. The IAEA will continue to assist Japan as it tackles the challenging work of decontamination and remediation in the affected areas, which will occupy all of us for years to come.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.