The International Atomic Energy Agency's ministerial conference on nuclear safety, which started on June 20 in Vienna, makes us acutely aware that the prevailing atmosphere on nuclear energy in the world is now different.
Most notably, the IAEA has taken due note of the global momentum against nuclear power generation. The Ministerial Declaration of June 20 notes, "(We) recognize that some States consider nuclear power as a viable option in meeting their energy needs, while other States have decided not to use or to phase out nuclear energy."
In 1953, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhauer delivered a landmark speech titled "Atoms for Peace" to the United Nations General Assembly. This led to the creation of the IAEA in 1957 as a nuclear watchdog that also promotes peaceful use of nuclear energy.
But today, even this international agency is no longer able to ignore popular protests against nuclear power generation. This is of no small significance.
It is ironic that it took the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant to make the IAEA rethink its role. And that role now is to monitor the safety of nuclear development rather than promote it.
One reason why change in the IAEA's role has become necessary is that even if the current anti-nuclear trend picks up further momentum, it does not mean that all nuclear power plants will be decommissioned immediately.
So long as there are plants in operation, serious accidents can occur, and they must be prevented.
Another reason is many newly emerging or developing nations are eyeing nuclear power generation to meet their growing energy needs. This spells lucrative business opportunities for advanced nations. It is necessary to assist the developing nations in their establishment of nuclear safety measures.
Against this backdrop, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano outlined a plan to have the agency's team of experts assess the safety of all nuclear power plants around the world. As part of his plan, Amano envisions randomly selecting 10 percent of the plants and checking them thoroughly for not only how they are run, but also what emergency measures are in place and what sort of regulations are applied to their operations.
We welcome the plan for two reasons.
One, it makes more practical sense to examine individual plants than to enforce a uniform safety standard for all. Obviously, the safety of a nuclear power plant needs to be determined according to natural and social factors peculiar to each plant, such as its vulnerability to natural disasters and how many people are living around it. We certainly found this out the hard way with the Fukushima plant.
Two, in a country such as Japan, where members of the "nuclear village" call all the shots, objective assessment of the situation by outside experts is of critical importance.
One concern we have, however, is how far the nations that have nuclear power plants will cooperate with Amano's plan. The IAEA says it will seek their consent before it proceeds with the plan. But some countries may balk because the use of nuclear energy has to do with each country's national technology.
But since the plan was proposed by the IAEA director-general who is Japanese, we suggest that our government be the first in the world to invite the IAEA's international team of experts to our country.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 22