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International Conference Addresses New Challenges in Preparedness and Response for Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi emphasizes the need for international cooperation in preparing for, and responding to, nuclear emergencies at the EPR 2021 Conference. Photo: M. Kasper/IAEA

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi emphasized the need for international cooperation in preparing for, and responding to, nuclear emergencies at the EPR Conference, October 2021. (Photo: M. Kasper/IAEA)

Experts in preparedness and response for nuclear and radiological emergencies concluded at a recently held IAEA conference that cooperation and coordination under a unified management system with a clear understanding of roles and specific responsibilities, which are tested regularly and involve all relevant stakeholders, are crucial to ensuring effective emergency preparedness and response to nuclear and radiological emergencies.

In his opening remarks, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi was clear on the need for international cooperation in this field: “When it comes to nuclear emergencies, and our response to them, it is the international nature of the effort that is going to make them really effective. Hence, this community, our community, is so essential to what we are doing.”

 The International Conference on the Development of Preparedness for National and International Emergency Response (EPR2021), was held last month over a five-day period at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria and online for virtual participants. The hybrid format conference brought together over 550 in-person participants and virtual observers spanning 90 Member States.

Emergency preparedness demands an effective and regular exchange of information. Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security Lydie Evrard said: “Partnerships, collaboration and coordination are the cornerstone of our shared culture. In this regard, the Safety Standard Committee for Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPReSC) and the Response and Assistance Network (RANET) are key partnerships. We also rely on the Competent Authorities and International Network for Education and Training for Emergency Preparedness and Response.”

When it comes to nuclear emergencies, and our response to them, it is the international nature of the effort that is going to make them really effective.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi

The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Challenge and an Opportunity

Climate change and its associated impacts, such as extreme weather events, are increasing the complexity of potential disasters. Governments and other stakeholders must prepare to protect their populations from increasingly complex emergencies.  The COVID-19 pandemic was a recurring theme of the discussions; participants described how the pandemic challenged emergency both preparedness programmes and response systems, driving innovation in exploring and using alternative means of communication and collaboration, including applying new information technologies, to sustain services and enable safe and effective remote operations.

For Conference President Ann Heinrich, the Director for the Office of Nuclear Incident Policy and Cooperation at the National Nuclear Security Administration of the United States, the pandemic has “opened the aperture” of opportunity in training, capacity-building and knowledge-sharing.

“There are benefits of these new methods and their potential contribution to effective training and response,” she said. “Even at this conference, people who would not otherwise have been able to spare the time or the expense of attending for the whole week were able to join us.  I think this is especially important for people in the early stages of their career. We should continue to explore how technologies can allow the wider dissemination of training, more efficient capacity building, and more effective response to nuclear or radiological emergencies.”

Other participants drew attention to the challenges faced and lessons learned for emergency preparedness and response (EPR) from the pandemic — notably the negative impact on public trust in official information sources caused by the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media. These challenges were echoed in a keynote address delivered by Paschal Donohoe, Minister of Finance of Ireland and President of the Eurogroup: “An absolute core responsibility of a politician in a crisis is to communicate. This responsibility becomes the most difficult during crisis times, as you may have very limited information or indeed information that changes frequently, or you are faced with hostility.”

An all-hazards approach for improved coordination

Conference President and Director, Office of Nuclear Incident Policy and Cooperation, NNSA, Ann Heinrich and Acting Head of the Incident and Emergency Centre, Florian Baciu, at the closing session of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Conference at the IAEA Headquarters in Vienna, Austria, October 2021. (Photo: M. Kasper/IAEA)

In an emergency, coordination and cooperation among all relevant communities of responders are critical to an effective response, whether they are disaster managers, security forces, law enforcement, first responders without radiation detection capabilities, radiation protection specialists or others. Participants agreed that proper coordination is best achieved through a unified command within the overall emergency management system under an all-hazard approach and that countries should seek to lead by example and promote safety-security coordination along with strong leadership, well documented processes and encouraging skilled human capital.

Member States highlighted the importance of continually ensuring that all emergency programmes are maintained and available even under challenging circumstances. By implementing IAEA Safety Standards, participating in the associated capacity building activities and utilizing services (such as Emergency Preparedness Review (EPREV) missions), Member States also recognized that these activities contribute towards an effective emergency preparedness and response, as well as broader regional harmonization.

Learning from the past and the future

Representatives from over 20 Member States and intergovernmental organizations presented case studies, good practices and lessons learned in emergency preparedness and response. To complement this look into the past, sessions also focused on how planning for emergencies can benefit from advancements in communication technology, medical preparedness and response, radiation monitoring and bio-dosimetry.

Looking ahead, Member States noted that as small modular reactors and other new reactor technologies are introduced, there is a need to develop consensus on how to apply IAEA safety standards, to ensure that an effective emergency preparedness and response framework remains in place, as required in the IAEA’s safety standards.

Last update: 17 Nov 2021

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