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The Evolution of the IAEA Safety Standards and Enhancing their Safety Footprint


Safety Series No. 1 – Safe Handling of Radioisotopes’ was the IAEA’s first publication, released in 1958, a year after the Agency was established.

The journey of the IAEA Safety Standards publications was showcased at a side event on 26 September, during the 67th General Conference. This event marked 65 years of the publications that serve as the global reference for national nuclear regulatory authorities to help protect people and the environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation.

Margaret Doane, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Management, facilitated a panel discussion that explored past and present safety standards from various perspectives. “Multilingual publication has enabled countries to make the IAEA Safety Standards the cornerstone of global nuclear safety and advancements in communication, including milestones in digital access and content has now a multiplier effect,” she said, adding that “‘Safety Series No. 1 – Safe Handling of Radioisotopes’ was the IAEA’s very first publication, which dates back to 1958, released a year after the Agency was established.”

Today, the IAEA Safety Standards comprise a series of publications developed through international consensus, which cover a range of requirements for the safe and peaceful use of nuclear science and technology. They serve as a technical basis for the IAEA to carry out its safety review missions and for countries to report on their national obligations as parties to multiple safety conventions.

 “The IAEA Safety Standards are flagship publications for the Agency, due to the IAEA mandate and the unique history of their development,” said Lydie Evrard, Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, who participated in the event. Highlighting how the IAEA Statute authorizes the Agency to establish and adopt safety standards, she explained their role in international cooperation activities and, in particular, advisory service and peer review missions. “Safety standards are the reference documents for all IAEA activities conducted to support the strengthening of nuclear and radiation safety infrastructures throughout the world,” she added.

Over the decades, shaped by research and the growing peaceful uses of the atom, a growing number of safety considerations and concepts have been incorporated in the Standards to reflect best practices in the safe use of nuclear science and technology. As the content and format of the Safety Standards have evolved, in parallel, the development and drafting process have also progressed to ensure and reflect international consensus.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, the Safety Standards were individual books covering different technical areas.  But that began to change in the 1970s when we saw a framework coming into place in 1974 with the Nuclear Safety Standards Programme,” said Khammar Mrabit, a panellist who worked with the Safety Standards both as an IAEA staff member and in his capacity as former Director-General of the Moroccan Agency for Nuclear and Radiological Safety and Security. He highlighted the significance of the Safety Standards in creating a community of practice that supported the “atoms for peace” vision at the core of the IAEA’s establishment. 

During the panel discussion, Dana Drábová, Chair of the Czech State Office for Nuclear Safety, referred to the practical support provided by the IAEA and highlighted how the implementation of nuclear safety conventions, combined with the industry standards and detailed national requirements, have established a consistent basis for protecting people and the environment. Drábová, who chaired the 5th and 6th terms of the IAEA Commission on Safety Standards from 2012 to 2019, noted that after the Chornobyl accident in 1986, several international conventions were based on the safety fundamentals hat existed in the 1990s.The three safety fundamentals that covered the safety of nuclear installations, the principles of radioactive waste management and radiation protection and the safety of radiation sources were then combined in 2006 to a single Safety Fundamental (SF1).

“Still today, the Safety Standards serve as a reference for countries to meet their obligations stated in these conventions,” she said. She went on to explain how every safety accident and incident are reflected in the Safety Standards, highlighting that the Safety Standards and guides were revised in light of the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident.

Maria Rentetzi, Professor of Science, Technology, and Gender Studies at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, reflected on the process of developing international standards from a science diplomacy perspective. “The history of radiation protection and the development of radiation standards is far from a linear story of progress. Rather it reflects a broader conception of international relations, nuclear diplomacy and the circulation of knowledge and expertise, which point to the role of international organizations as well as national regulatory institutions,” said Rentetzi, who researches the history of radiation protection and the role of the IAEA in setting radiation standards.

The side event linked milestones in the evolution of the Safety Standards with the current range of IAEA services, which support countries to access, understand and adopt the recommendations in the Safety Standards, enabling them to develop and adopt their own national safety standards. Whether in digital formats or on paper, in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish the IAEA is ensuring the availability and accessibility of the Safety Standards to all countries, while carefully preserving the historical records of the standards that came before them.

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