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Experts gather at UN atomic agency to boost nuclear power plant safety

12 April 2005 – As part of an effort to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants and prevent a repeat of a Chernobyl-style disaster, top officials from more than 30 countries are meeting at the Vienna headquarters of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency to share information and upgrade precautions.

Under the Convention on Nuclear Safety, of which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the depositary, parties meet every three years to “peer review” their national nuclear safety programmes. Countries submit reports covering, for example, the construction, operation and regulation of their civilian nuclear power plants.

This is the third review meeting since the Convention entered into force in 1996. The catalyst for the treaty was the 1986 Chernobyl accident, when international implications of nuclear safety were magnified and interest intensified in internationally binding safety standards.

Nearly 8.4 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were exposed to radiation when the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine blew up. Beyond the cancers and chronic health problems, especially among children, some 150,000 kilometres – an area half the size of Italy – were contaminated, while agricultural areas covering nearly 52,000 square kilometres, more than the size of Denmark, were ruined.

During the two-week review meeting, parties will examine and discuss national reports about the safety of commercial nuclear plants in each country, covering the years 2002 to 2004.

“This process allows the Convention’s contracting parties to share information freely, to more effectively improve safety measures within their respective countries and to identify ways in which international cooperation can improve worldwide nuclear power plant safety,” said the head of IAEA Nuclear Installation Safety, Ken Brockman.

The Convention is an incentive-based agreement that does not rely on controls and sanctions but rather on self assessment, information sharing and active peer review. “Neither the IAEA nor the Contracting Parties, therefore, serve in compliance roles,” Mr. Brockman added. “Instead, the interactions of the peer review process serve to entice open communications and corrective actions. To date, this has been quite effective.”