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Preparing to Assist in a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency Under all Circumstances

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IAEA Director General Rafael M. Grossi chairs a mid-exercise briefing of the Steering Group on 25 March 2020. (Photo: IAEA)

You cannot be “too prepared” for a nuclear or radiological emergency. That is why emergency exercise scenarios should include challenging, high risk, low probability events.

Last week a planned IAEA coordinated “ConvEx-2b exercise” went ahead and saw the participation of 35 countries and two Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres (RSMCS) of the World Meteorological Organization. The three-day exercise, from 24 to 26 March, was conducted while the responders in many Member States and in the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) in Vienna worked remotely to support measures taken to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus — COVID-19.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi chaired a mid-exercise meeting of the Incident and Emergency System Steering Group and told participants: “We need to be prepared for the possibility that nuclear and radiological emergencies resulting from a safety or security event could be accompanied by natural disasters, pandemics or other crises. Conducting this exercise at a time when all of our lives are being seriously disrupted by the coronavirus crisis demonstrates our determination to maintain our emergency response capability, regardless of the causes and circumstances of any crisis, the IAEA will act quickly to coordinate an effective international response.”

We need to be prepared for the possibility that nuclear and radiological emergencies resulting from a safety or security event could be accompanied by natural disasters, pandemics or other crises.
Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director General

Assistance in a nuclear or radiological emergency – even during a pandemic

The ConvEx-2b ‘players’ included 17 Member States in the role of ‘Requesting States’ and a further 20 ‘Assisting Players’, comprising 18 ‘Assisting’ Member States and two ‘Assisting’ RSMCs.

Member States’ assistance requests focused on the various safety or security related nuclear and radiological emergency scenarios, as well as operating during an on-going pandemic situation such as COVID-19, where first responders operate in an even more challenging  environment. For instance, Requesting States’ plans provided for additional precautions to protect the Field Assistance Teams deployed by the Assisting Member States.

The “Assistance Action Plans” included immediate COVID-19 testing for the Field Assistance Teams on arrival and providing them with personal protective equipment to protect them from COVID-19 exposure and on-going medical assessment while they deliver assistance.

Testing time objectives

Convex-2b exercises test the players’ efficiency and effectiveness in offering or requesting assistance. "Speed and efficiency are essential strategic requirements to facilitate assistance to Member States who may need to manage different, simultaneous crises occurring worldwide," noted Elena Buglova, Head of the IAEA's Incident and Emergency Centre whose staff organized and coordinated the exercise.

The exercise commenced with those Member States acting as the ‘Accident States’, seeking assistance via the IAEA to respond to a hypothetical emergency. The IEC then notified the participating Member States’ designated Competent Authorities and international organizations of these requests. Their procedures were then set into motion to determine if, and how, they could submit an offer of assistance to the Accident State.

In consultation with the Accident State and the Assisting States, the IEC coordinated and prepared the Assistance Action Plan that outlined each partner's roles, responsibilities and activities, which was then agreed and signed by the Assistance Action Plan’s parties.

While the focus of this exercise is relevant to the 35 States Parties registered in the IAEA’s Response and Assistance Network (RANET), all competent authorities and international organizations were encouraged to participate.

The exercise results, and the IEC’s evaluation, will be published on the IAEA’s secure website for operational 24/7 communication, USIE, or the Unified System for Information Exchange in Incidents and Emergencies. Sharing this feedback affords all Member States and international organizations the opportunity to review the exercise and implement lessons learned to advance their emergency preparedness arrangements as well as improve their capabilities.

The IAEA's mandate in preparedness and response

The IAEA’s IEC, prepares, conducts and evaluates exercises to strengthen Member States’ and international emergency preparedness. These exercises test whether the operational arrangements Member States, international organizations, and the IAEA have in place meet key response objectives, some of which are defined under international law — the  Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency.

As part of the IAEA's work in coordinating emergency preparedness internationally, it regularly conducts various exercises with Member States' authorities to test whether they meet the Conventions' response requirements.

The least complex of the exercises, ConvEx-1, tests whether Member States and international organizations can respond to an emergency alert on a 24/7 basis. Contact between the Competent Authority and the IAEA’s IEC must be established within a set time frame. Simultaneously, the registered contact details of the official communication channels are confirmed.

ConvEx-2 exercises test Member States’ procedures for swiftly and correctly exchanging information and arranging assistance.

Finally, ConvEx-3, the largest and most complex exercise conducted by the IAEA, involves many Member States and international organizations. It requires continuous, 24/7 operations for several days and tests arrangements for severe radiological and nuclear emergencies. The last one was held in 2017 and the next is planned for 2021.

IAEA Director General Rafael M. Grossi (left), IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security Juan Carlos Lentijo and Head of the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Centre Elena Buglova at the Steering Group meeting, 25 March 2020. (Photo: IAEA)

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