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Know the IAEA Safety Standards

Michael Madsen

The BN-800 commercial fast reactor at the Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant in Russia. (Photo: Rosenergoatom)

The accident that took place at Fukushima Daiichi has fundamentally changed the nuclear power sector and its approach to safety. Experiences and lessons learned from the accident, as well as achievements undertaken by national, regional, and international communities since, will be the focus of experts seeking to further strengthen nuclear safety at next week’s International Conference on a Decade of Progress after Fukushima-Daiichi. Fundamental to improving safety and stopping a similar accident from occurring in the future, are the IAEA safety standards.

What are the IAEA safety standards?

Nuclear technologies hugely benefit society, whether it’s producing low carbon energy, treating cancer, sterilizing food or monitoring soil erosion. Applying these technologies, however, requires careful regulation to reduce risks and prevent potential radiation exposure of workers, patients, the public and the environment. This is where safety standards enter the picture.

While the prime responsibility for safety lies with the person or organization responsible for activities involving nuclear technology, regulating safety is a national responsibility, and the IAEA can help. The IAEA produces safety standards that reflect an international consensus on what constitutes a high level of safety for protecting people and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

The IAEA safety standards cover all nuclear and radiation applications utilized for peaceful purposes, and provide guidance and requirements for the medical uses of radiation, the operation of nuclear facilities (such as nuclear power plants), the production, transport and use of radioactive material, and the management of radioactive waste.

How are they structured and developed?

The IAEA safety standards consist of three sets of publications: Safety Fundamentals, which establish the fundamental safety objectives and the principles of protection and safety in language that’s understandable to non-expert readers; Safety Requirements, which set out the requirements that must be met to ensure the protection of people and the environment, both now and in the future, and help countries establish their national regulatory frameworks; and Safety Guides, which present good and best practices and offer recommendations and guidance on how to comply with the Safety Requirements.

Creating the IAEA safety standards is an open and transparent process in which knowledge is gathered, synthesized and integrated from experience of using nuclear technologies around the world. Drafts produced by the IAEA Secretariat are then reviewed by five different Safety Standards Committees and shared with IAEA Member States for comments and further input.

The Committees cover nuclear safety, radiation safety, safety of radioactive waste, the safe transport of radioactive material, and emergency preparedness and response, and include nominated experts and officials from different countries and organizations. All IAEA safety standards are endorsed by the Commission on Safety Standards, and the Safety Fundamentals and Safety Requirements are also ultimately approved by the Board of Governors — one of the IAEA’s governing bodies.

How are they applied?

Applying IAEA safety standards is a decision made by countries. The IAEA safety standards are not legally binding on countries, and Member States apply them at their own discretion. The standards do apply, however, to the IAEA in its own operations and when the Agency provides assistance to countries.

When a country chooses to apply IAEA safety standards, it often looks to adopt them for use in its own national regulations. The IAEA safety standards are also sometimes applied by other organizations or industries that design, construct and operate nuclear facilities, or use radiation and radioactive sources.

March, 2021
Vol. 62-1

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