Factsheets and FAQs - Nuclear Safety

16 June 2011

Who is responsible for nuclear safety and how does the international community ensure it? These questions are presented in this concise FAQ:

Who is responsible for nuclear safety?

Nuclear safety is the responsibility of every nation that utilizes nuclear technology.

National governments are responsible for regulations that govern how safety at nuclear facilities is maintained, as well as to reduce radiation risks, including emergency response and recovery actions, to monitor releases of radioactive substances to the environment and to regulate the safe decommissioning of facilities and disposal of radioactive waste.

Nuclear facility operators are ultimately responsible for the safety of their facility.

The IAEA, through the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, works to provide a strong, sustainable and visible global nuclear safety and security framework for the protection of people, society and the environment. This framework provides for the harmonized development and application of safety and security standards, guidelines and requirements; but it does not have the mandate to enforce the application of safety standards within a country.

How does the international community ensure nuclear safety?

After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, international cooperation in nuclear safety was significantly intensified: four international safety conventions, two Codes of Conduct, fundamental safety principles and a body of globally recognized IAEA Safety Standards were developed and adopted. The IAEA's Safety Standards reflect an international consensus on what constitutes a high level of safety for protecting people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

What are the IAEA Safety Standards?

The IAEA takes seriously the enduring challenge for users and regulators everywhere: that of ensuring a high level of safety in the peaceful uses of nuclear materials and radiation sources around the world. The IAEA's Statute authorizes the IAEA to establish or adopt safety standards and to provide for their application to protect health and minimize the danger to life and property from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

The IAEA safety standards establish fundamental safety principles, requirements and measures to control the radiation exposure of people and the release of radioactive material to the environment, to restrict the likelihood of events that might lead to a loss of control over a nuclear reactor core or a radioactive source and to mitigate the consequences of such events if they were to occur. The standards apply to facilities, transport and waste that may harbor risks arising from ionizing radiation.

The standards are derived from three interlinked sets of documents: safety fundamentals that present the fundamental safety objectives and principles of protection and safety, and provide the basis for the safety requirements; safety requirements that ensure the protection of people and the environment now and for coming generations; and safety guides that provide international best practice in applying the safety requirements.

The preparation and review of the safety standards involves the IAEA Secretariat and four safety standards committees for nuclear safety (NUSSC), radiation safety (RASSC), the safety of radioactive waste (WASSC) and the safe transport of radioactive material (TRANSSC) and a Commission on Safety Standards (CSS) which oversees the IAEA safety standards programme.

How does the IAEA help countries use nuclear power safely?

To enhance nuclear power safety, for example, the IAEA advises countries on how to put the appropriate legal and regulatory framework in place and how to ensure the highest standards of safety and security. IAEA experts provide know-how in energy and economic planning, project management, procuring vendors, construction, commissioning, start-up and operation of nuclear reactors, and their eventual de-commissioning. Experts also provide guidance in safely sustaining the "fuel cycle" from uranium mining, to fuel fabrication and remediation. The IAEA's peer review and advisory services are designed to enable Member States to introduce and utilize nuclear technologies in health care, industry and power production sustainably, profitably, safely and securely.

Safety standards are only effective, however, if they are properly applied in practice. The IAEA's safety services - which range in scope from engineering safety, operational safety, and radiation, transport and waste safety to regulatory matters and safety culture in organizations - assist Member States upon their request in applying the standards and appraising their effectiveness. These services are provided by a team of independent, international, "peer" experts that review regulatory systems, reactor safety, site and seismic safety, operational safety, emergency preparedness, accident management and nuclear power safety and security.

Since nuclear and radiation safety are a national responsibility, IAEA Member States are encouraged to adopt the IAEA's safety standards for use in their national regulations. The standards are also applied by designers, manufacturers and operators around the world to enhance nuclear and radiation safety in power generation, medicine, industry, agriculture, and research.

What is nuclear security?

Nuclear safety today is complemented by security guidelines, working to protect nuclear facilities from malicious acts. The IAEA helps Member States assess their security needs, reduce risks and bolster security wherever nuclear or other radioactive material is used, stored or transported. The IAEA has an extensive nuclear security programme which extends from physical protection at facilities to radiation detection and response.

An important tool in this effort is the Illicit Trafficking Database, to which States and international organizations contribute information. This data allows the IAEA to detect emerging patterns, trace smuggling routes and methods, and assist States in minimizing associated risks.

Additionally, IAEA International Nuclear Security Advisory Services identify Member State national nuclear security requirements and the measures needed to meet them. Working jointly through its International Physical Protection Advisory Services, the IAEA evaluates States' physical protection arrangements. The regulatory experts undertaking Integrated Regulatory Reviews help States improve their national regulatory bodies' effectiveness and support these authorities as they implement regulations.

Is there an "acceptable" risk when dealing with radioactivity?

No matter where we live, we are all exposed to several different sources of radiation. Natural sources of radiation include cosmic radiation and radionuclides that originated in the earth's crust and are present everywhere in the environment, including the human body itself.

According to the 2008 United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation Report on the Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation, "for most individuals, exposure to natural background radiation is the most significant part of their total exposure to radiation."

The amount of radiation absorbed by the body, or simply the radiation dose, is measured in units called microSieverts, milliSieverts, and Sieverts. According to the World Health Organization, on average, a person is exposed to approximately 3 000 microSieverts annually.

One thousand microSieverts equal one milliSievert, and one million microSieverts equal one Sievert. If we "convert" microSieverts into Euro cents, for instance, an average person's annual radiation dose amounts to 3 000 Euro cents, of which 2 400 Euro cents' "worth" of the annual dose is caused by background radiation. Medical exposure to radiation accounts for another 600 Euro cents' "worth" of exposure. Human-made radiation accounts for about 1 cent out of the total annual dose amounting to 3 000 "Euro cents".

International standards have been developed to limit the potential risks from exposure to radiation. In this context, "acceptable" means that the levels of risk are similar to the other risks we accept every day when mining coal or using various methods of transportation.

Last update: 14 October 2014