Statement to International Conference on Chernobyl: Twenty-Five Years On - Safety for the Future

International Conference on Chernobyl: 25 Years On - Safety for the Future

Kiev, Ukraine

by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have been invited to this International Conference to look back at the world's most serious nuclear accident, but also to look ahead, to a world in which nuclear power plants are as safe as human ingenuity can make them.

We are all familiar with the sad outcome of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. It led to the deaths from radiation sickness of around 50 people engaged in the immediate emergency and recovery operations.

Some 600 000 people were affected by high radiation doses. The Chernobyl Forum - made up of representatives from the IAEA, the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and other international organizations - concluded some years ago that around 4 000 of them may die prematurely in the coming decades as a result of their exposure.

The social consequences of the accident were extensive. More than 100 000 people were evacuated from their homes immediately after the accident and the total number of evacuees from severely contaminated areas eventually reached 350 000. This was deeply traumatic for all concerned and had a lasting impact on their lives.

Since 1986, radiation levels in the environment have fallen by a factor of several hundred, due to natural processes and countermeasures. Most of the land contaminated with radionuclides has been made safe and returned to economic activity.

Understandably, Chernobyl had a very negative impact on public opinion. Global interest in nuclear power declined significantly for years after the accident, but momentum had been regained more recently, not least due to the substantial progress made in nuclear safety. Unfortunately, just as we were preparing to mark the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, there was a very serious accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan.

The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi is still continuing. It needs to be assessed and the appropriate lessons must be learned. But this latest accident demonstrates that, despite the great progress made in the last 25 years, more needs to be done to ensure that a "Safety First" approach becomes fully entrenched among nuclear power plant operators, governments and regulators.

Today, I will focus on the progress that has been made since Chernobyl in improving nuclear reactor safety and establishing a global nuclear safety framework. I will share with you my views on what needs to be done to ensure that lessons learned from this latest painful experience at Fukushima Daiichi lead to further improvements in nuclear safety for the benefit of all.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I was personally involved with Chernobyl in my previous capacity, including in negotiations between G7 countries and the authorities of Ukraine on the shutdown of the last working reactor at the site in December 2000. I visited the exclusion zone several times. I was in the reactor building and the former control room at Chernobyl and saw the clean-up effort. The experience made a profound impression on me.

I am pleased to see the great progress that has been made in dealing with the consequences of the accident in the countries most affected. And I welcome the fact that some important lessons were learned internationally, to which the IAEA made a significant contribution.

Chernobyl led to a great step forward in international cooperation in the field of nuclear safety. We now have four safety conventions, two Codes of Conduct, fundamental safety principles and a body of globally recognised IAEA Safety Standards. Our Safety Standards reflect an international consensus on what constitutes a high level of safety for protecting people and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

An international coordinated response system, with the IAEA's Incident and Emergency Centre at its heart, is now in place. It has been invaluable in responding to the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

We also have an IAEA peer review system, based on the Agency's Safety Standards, which involves the deployment of international teams of experts to study and advise on the operational safety of a country's nuclear reactors or the effectiveness of its regulatory system.

The IAEA, working closely with the three most affected countries and with UN partner organizations, has been at the forefront of the international response to Chernobyl throughout the past 25 years.

We have made a key contribution in areas such as remediation of affected cities and farmland, monitoring of human exposure to radiation in affected areas, and dissemination of information. All of the nuclear material at Chernobyl is under Agency safeguards. Also, as a result of the accident, the international nuclear liability regime was strengthened.

Chernobyl significantly affected government policy in many countries. Some cancelled plans to build additional nuclear power plants while others decided to terminate their nuclear power programmes altogether.

That situation changed significantly in the last few years as more and more countries became interested in nuclear power as a clean source of energy that can help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

As of the end of 2010, more than 60 countries had informed the IAEA that they were interested in introducing nuclear power. Most existing users of nuclear power also planned to expand their programmes.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Fukushima Daiichi accident has raised questions in many people's minds about whether nuclear energy can ever be made sufficiently safe.

The crisis was caused by natural disasters - the most devastating earthquake and tsunami seen in the region in recorded history. It appears that backup power generators that kicked in after electrical power was lost due to the earthquake were destroyed by the tsunami. Cooling systems ceased to function and heat and pressure built up in the reactor vessels. The reactor buildings were damaged as a result of hydrogen explosions and some radioactive material was released.

The Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) last week upgraded its classification of the severity of the accident to Level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. This is the highest level and puts Fukushima Daiichi, in this respect, on a par with Chernobyl. However, the two accidents differ in many ways. To take just one example, NISA estimated that the amount of radioactive material released to the atmosphere so far was approximately 10% of that released at Chernobyl.

The IAEA has been working at full stretch since the accident happened. Right from the start, it was clear that a "business as usual" approach would be inadequate. We immediately activated the Joint Radiation Emergency Management Plan of the international organizations. We despatched IAEA radiation monitoring teams, food safety and marine environment specialists, as well as experts in the field of boiling water reactors to Japan. We channelled international offers of assistance to Japan and provided regular technical briefings on the developing situation to our Member States and the media.

Information-sharing about nuclear emergencies is a key Agency function. I went to Tokyo to discuss the flow of information with the Prime Minister and to offer the IAEA's assistance and expertise. Since then, the volume and quality of information which we receive from Japan have improved considerably. Our ability to provide validated information about the status of the reactors and about radiation levels in the environment and in foodstuffs is greatly appreciated by our Member States.

Last weekend, the operating company TEPCO announced a two-stage roadmap towards stabilisation of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. In the first stage, expected to last three months, the aim is to steadily reduce radiation doses. The second step, expected to take another three to six months, involves bringing the release of radioactive material under control, with associated further significant reductions in radiation doses.

This roadmap marks the beginning of a new phase. The IAEA will continue to provide every assistance to Japan in fully stabilising the Fukushima Daiichi plant, monitoring the environment, food and agriculture, cleaning up contaminated areas and making radiological assessments.

Last week, Contracting Parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety announced that safety reviews would be carried out at their nuclear installations and that safety measures that defend against extreme external events would be re-examined. They plan to hold a meeting dedicated to the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2012.

It is clear that more needs to be done to reduce the risk of a future nuclear accident anywhere in the world, and to mitigate the consequences of any such accident, if it should occur. More than ever before, our watchword must now be "Safety First." Safety First, when countries review their existing nuclear power plants, when they plan and build new facilities, and when engineers design innovative new reactors.

The IAEA is where the international discussion about the way ahead should take place. We have broad membership and considerable technical expertise, accumulated over five decades. We can also ensure the necessary transparency.

In order to ensure high-level political support for this important process, I have proposed that an IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety should take place from June 20 to 24 in Vienna. The Conference is likely to make a preliminary assessment of the Fukushima accident, to discuss ways of strengthening emergency preparedness and response and to review nuclear safety generally.

Technical issues may include improving the protection of nuclear power plants against multiple hazards, preparedness for prolonged power blackouts, enhancing emergency power supply and the cooling of spent fuel under severe accident conditions.

Clearly, the efforts made since Chernobyl to enhance global nuclear safety were not enough to prevent the Fukushima Daiichi accident from happening. As part of the early response to the accident, practical technical measures might be considered to further enhance safety at nuclear power plants. Many countries have launched comprehensive safety reviews with this in mind.

In the medium and longer term, more attention needs to be given to harmonised implementation of the many valuable safety instruments which we already have. Regulatory bodies must be further strengthened. The information flow among Member States, and between Member States and the IAEA, should be improved. The IAEA system of expert peer review missions could be strengthened and expanded.

Technological developments, such as the introduction of next-generation reactors with stronger reliance on inherent safety features, will be an important driver of enhanced safety in the coming years. The IAEA can play a key role in coordinating national efforts to promote ever safer nuclear energy technology.

These are some of the issues which I hope we will be able to discuss at our June Ministerial Conference. Needless to say, the Conference will be just the start of a lengthy process of strengthening the global nuclear safety framework, which I expect will continue for years to come.

All of us working in the nuclear field - operators, regulators, governments and international organizations - have an enormous task ahead of us in helping to assure the public that nuclear power plants can and will be operated safely.

The worries of millions of people throughout the world about whether nuclear energy is safe must be taken seriously. The release of radioactive material into the environment following the Fukushima Daiichi accident has caused great anxiety, not just in the vicinity of the plant, but also in countries far from Japan. However, we should bear in mind that radioactivity measured in other parts of Japan such as Tokyo is low, while in other countries it is minuscule and poses no harm to human health. Nevertheless, we must continue to work hard on improving international safety standards and ensuring that they are fully implemented. Full transparency about the risks of radiation, and about how those risks can be managed, is also vital. Only in this way will we succeed in addressing the concerns that have been raised by Fukushima Daiichi.

It remains to be seen what the long-term consequences of the accident will be for the nuclear power sector. It has already had a negative impact on social acceptance of nuclear power and some countries have announced reviews of their plans in this field. However, the basic drivers behind the resurgence of interest in nuclear power have not changed as a result of Fukushima Daiichi. These include rising global energy demand as well as concerns about climate change, volatile fossil fuel prices and energy security. Nuclear power will remain an important option for many countries, so it is essential that we continue to work on improving nuclear safety.

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Chernobyl accident was a great human tragedy, but many valuable and important lessons were learned as a result of it.

I am confident that valuable lessons will also be learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident which will result in further substantial improvements in nuclear operating safety, regulation and the overall safety culture. I repeat: "Safety First" is the watchword that must underpin all of our work in the future, even more than in the past.

I ask all of you to give your unstinting support to the IAEA to help ensure that accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi never happen again.

Thank you.

Last update: 21 October 2014