UN agency tackles post-Fukushima safety, Iran

A global safety "action plan" in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster and growing suspicions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons will dominate a meeting of the UN atomic watchdog next week.

Also in focus for the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) board of governors in Vienna from Monday to Friday will be Syria, North Korea and tentative first steps towards a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa (R) holds a meeting with Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Reza Rahimi (5th from L, at the table) and his delegation, at the Carondelet presidential palace in Quito, on September 9, 2011

The scale of the March 11 disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986, made many worry about the safety of nuclear power, with the IAEA convening a special ministerial conference in June.

Yukiya Amano, IAEA director general, was charged with drawing up ways to learn from Fukushima and to propose in light of the devastating accident steps to ensure that the world's some 440 nuclear reactors in 30 countries are safe.

According to a draft seen by AFP, the 12-point plan encourages fresh assessments of nuclear plants and of how well countries are prepared for emergencies, as well as more "peer reviews" of reactors by foreign experts.

For some diplomats, however, Amano's proposals have been watered down too much, most notably by Washington and Beijing, by for example stopping short of making these visits mandatory.

The board will also be given a new and critical report on Iran's nuclear activities, which many Western countries suspect are aimed at developing nuclear weapons but which the Islamic republic says are peaceful.

According to a draft report seen by AFP, the watchdog is "increasingly concerned" about "activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile".

Iran last month allowed IAEA inspectors to see a number of sites, but Western diplomats dismiss this as an empty "charm offensive" that fails to address core concerns as set out in four sets of UN Security Council resolutions.

"We have heard the Iranian ambassador talk about Iran having opened a new chapter of cooperation with the agency," said Simon Smith, Britain's envoy to the United Nations in Vienna.

"It won't surprise you to hear that our view is that this visit amounts to no such thing."

Syria will also be a talking point for the IAEA board, three months after reporting Damascus to the Security Council over a desert site -- bombed by Israel in 2007 -- that the agency said was "very likely" a covert reactor.

Of greater concern though is North Korea, which has conducted two nuclear tests, which kicked out IAEA inspectors in 2009 and which is suspected of supplying equipment, materials and knowhow to Syria and Libya.

In a new report on North Korea to be presented to the board, for which the watchdog has had to rely on information from other people and satellite imagery, it calls Pyongyang's activities a "matter of serious concern".

It adds that indications about the construction of a new facility for enriching uranium -- which can be used in a nuclear bomb as well as for nuclear power -- and a new reactor are "deeply troubling".

Another topic will be preparations for a November forum in Vienna on creating a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East after some countries in the volatile region showed willingness to attend after a decade of stonewalling.

AFP

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