UN atom chief plays down safety cost concerns

Planned steps to boost global nuclear safety after Japan’s Fukushima disaster will not lead to any major increase in costs for reactor operators, the United Nations (UN) atomic energy chief said on Sunday.

“It is true there is additional cost. For private companies spending more is always difficult but that is not an enormous amount of money,” Yukiya Amano told Reuters, in comments that may help to reassure nuclear power firms.

In June, an industry body said new regulatory measures and other post-Fukushima action must be “cost-effective”, as the sector has been struggling in the last decade to limit capital expenditure while building a new generation of nuclear plants.

Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he still expected worldwide use of nuclear energy to grow, although at a somewhat slower pace in coming years than forecast before the Fukushima emergency.

The huge earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant in March, causing the world’s worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, prompted a global rethink of atomic power.

Germany has decided to close all its reactors by 2022 and Italy voted in a referendum to ban nuclear for decades.

Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat, suggested factors such as global warming and energy security would help underpin demand, as would China’s and India’s determination to press ahead with nuclear power.

“The slowdown will not be that big … it is for sure that there will be growth,” Amano said in an interview on Friday.

“I don’t think people forgot about the danger of climate change. That danger persists. And countries need more energy and this doesn’t change”.

Before the Fukushima crisis, the IAEA had expected up to 25 countries to bring their first nuclear power plants on line by 2030. Today, some 29 states have nuclear energy.

Amano said there would be a downward revision of that forecast but there would not be a “huge” change in the figure.

Significant safety boost
The IAEA is seeking to enhance global safety standards to make sure there is no repeat of Fukushima, which has spurred many countries, including Japan, the United States and European nations, to review their nuclear rules and reactors.

Three reactors at the complex went into meltdown when power and cooling functions failed, causing radiation leakage and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

Under a draft IAEA action plan put forward to the agency’s 151 member states this month, the Vienna-based UN body would carry out international safety checks of 10% of the world’s some 440 reactor units over a three-year period.

The document, obtained by Reuters, outlined a series of measures in 10 areas to help improve safety.

While stressing that atomic energy safety was primarily a national responsibility, it signalled a strengthened role for the IAEA and its expert missions to review compliance with international reactor and regulatory standards.

The proposals, aimed at ensuring nuclear plants can withstand extreme events such as those that crippled Fukushima, may prove controversial for states which want to keep safety an issue strictly for national authorities.

Amano said the action plan, which he hopes will be endorsed by the IAEA’s annual member state gathering next month, would help lead to a “significant” improvement in nuclear safety.

He said some “voluntary financial contributions” were needed to help fund the plan but this was not expected to be a problem.

Asked to what extent added new safety measures would raise operating costs for nuclear stations, Amano said, “Not much.”

He added, “Nuclear power plants are a very expensive investment. Compared to that investment a strengthening of the building or changing the positioning of diesel (power generators) will not change the cost enormously”. — Reuters

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