The U.N. atomic agency's 35-nation board adopted a plan on Tuesday to strengthen global nuclear safety following Japan's Fukushima accident six months ago, despite criticism from several states that the proposals had been watered down.
The board of governors approved by consensus the eight-page document put forward by Director General Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), setting out a series of voluntary steps meant to enhance standards worldwide.
A governors' debate on the issue underlined divisions between states seeking stronger international commitments and others wanting safety to remain an issue strictly for national authorities.
"There were a number of critical voices," one diplomat said about the closed-door discussions, referring to states which made it clear they wanted firmer measures from the IAEA.
Japan's Fukushima reactor disaster in March spurred a rethink about nuclear energy worldwide and calls for more concerted measures, including beefed-up safety checks of reactors, to make sure such an accident does not recur.
One group of nations — including Germany, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Canada and Denmark — voiced disappointment about the final version of the IAEA's safety action plan for not going far enough.
It represents a "considerable step backwards" compared with the aspirations voiced by many at a ministerial safety meeting in June, the Swiss representative told the board.
The United States, India, China and Pakistan were among countries resisting any moves towards mandatory outside inspections of their atomic energy facilities.
Seeking the middle ground, the IAEA appeared to have gradually lowered its ambitions in a series of drafts.
The one that was adopted placed more emphasis on the voluntary nature of the measures than earlier versions, also regarding the central issue of nuclear plant inspections organised by the IAEA — so-called peer reviews.
Among the plan's actions, states would promptly undertake national assessments of how nuclear plants were designed to withstand "extreme natural hazards." Other steps included measures to strengthen emergency preparedness.
At the start of the board meeting in Vienna on Monday, Amano defended the plan against the criticism, saying it would mark a significant step forward in nuclear safety.
U.S. Ambassador Glyn Davies said it represented a "sound beginning to learn and act upon what we now know" about the Fukushima accident, the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Germany's envoy, Ruediger Luedeking, had earlier expressed "regret" that the plan did not "fully meet our expectations".
The ministerial meeting in June asked the Vienna-based U.N. agency to draw up the plan to help improve standards in how reactors are able to cope with natural disasters, in how the industry is regulated and in how to respond to emergencies.
Japan's nuclear crisis, caused by damage to the plant from a massive earthquake and tsunami, had particular political impact in Europe. Germany moved to close all its reactors by 2022 and Italy voted to ban nuclear power for decades.
Fuel rods in three reactors at the Japanese complex started melting down when power and cooling functions failed, causing radiation leakage and forcing the evacuation of 80,000 people.
At present, there are no mandatory, international nuclear safety regulations, only IAEA recommendations which national regulators are in charge of enforcing. The U.N. agency conducts review missions, but only at a member state's invitation.
Decisions on the safety of nuclear installations will "remain squarely the prerogative of sovereign national governments" also after adoption of the IAEA action plan, said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.