The United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspected the carnage at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant last week. Take a look at this photograph of their representative. Take a look at their plastic suits with IAEA hastily sprayed on the back in paint or scrawled on with marker pen. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence does it?
The IAEA was at Fukushima to assess the situation at the disaster site in its role as the global nuclear watchdog and regulator. The problem is that that’s not the organisations only role. The IAEA is a four-headed beast.
Firstly, the IAEA needs to guard against the spreading of nuclear weapons – among others by overseeing that no nuclear material from the nuclear industry is diverted for military use. You remember probably their missions to Iraq and Iran.
Secondly, the IAEA draws up nuclear safety standards. These are used as benchmarks in virtually all nuclear countries. In the European Union they are even enshrined in law.
Thirdly, it controls research on health issues surrounding radiation that should then feed into its safety standards.
Fourthly, it promotes nuclear power. According to the statutes of the agency, the objective of the IAEA is to ‘accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy’.
Can you begin to see the conflicts of interest here? An organisation charged with promoting nuclear power around the world also controls nuclear safety and health standards. It’s like expecting a tobacco company to prevent lung cancer.
And it gets worse. The IAEA holds a veto over World Health Organization (WHO) programs related to radiation and nuclear power. This has undermined WHO’s ability to respond properly to disasters like the one at Fukushima. The IAEA has vetoed WHO conferences on radiation and health. Independent research has been under-funded and critical scientists ostracized.
Through the dominance of the IAEA and the nuclear industry, the health effects of radiation have been misrepresented and underestimated. As a result, the WHO is unable to provide independent advice and assessments of nuclear accidents in order to protect people at risk.
Which brings us back to Fukushima. The IAEA might like to think it is independent but it is far from it. The way it communicates its message is designed to serve the interests of the nuclear industry and governments not people’s health or the environment. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the IAEA channelled all its information through the Japanese government who could then, if it chose, to delay or downplay it.
Thus we got things like the venting of radioactive steam on March 13 that caused much of the iodine contamination being described as a much safer sounding ‘controlled release of vapour’.
Furthermore, at no stage has the IAEA given any recommendations or analysis of the Fukushima situation. It failed to issue any kind of warning on the likely amounts of radiation released from the overheating reactors or the overly optimistic assessments provided by the Japanese government in the early days of the crisis.
The latest proof of its happy-clappy outlook on Fukushima can be found in the UK nuclear regulator Michael Weightman-led IAEA mission to the destroyed reactors.
The Japanese Government’s longer term response to protect the public,including evacuation, has been impressive and extremely well organized.
What? The village of Iitate close to Fukushima was only evacuated weeks after Greenpeace had found far over-limit levels of radiation there. Schoolchildren were expected to withstand 20 times the International Commission of Radiological Protection's recommended radiation limit. Maybe Mr. Weightman hadn't had the time to follow the news about Fukushima in the last weeks and someone forgot to tell him about this during his trip to Japan.
But the conclusion of the mission report summary maybe beats it all:
The IAEA mission urges the international nuclear community to take advantage of the unique opportunity created by the Fukushima accident to seek to learn and improve worldwide nuclear safety.
Of course! Nuclear safety is in good hands. The Fukushima disaster was the cold shower needed to refresh nuclear safety culture.
It’s time the IAEA was reformed. It should remember that it serves the people of the world not the nuclear industry or governments with dirty and dangerous secrets to hide.