Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The Fukushima nuclear plant disaster keeps bringing new bulletins of unexpected trouble, including the disclosure this week by Tokyo Electric Power Co. that three reactors suffered fuel meltdowns in the early days of the crisis, suggesting that the accident was far more severe than previously acknowledged.

In the first few hours of the debacle, Japanese engineers struggled alone. Eventually, U.S. scientists, robotics experts from Western Europe and nuclear-cleanup veterans of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown from Ukraine and Russia were able to help. At the outset, though, there was no effective mechanism for rapidly enlisting global know-how.

Given the ease with which radiation can spread beyond containment points and across borders, it seems foolhardy for the world to rely so heavily on a local -- or even a national -- response.

One entity could have rallied world expertise in a hurry: the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. The United Nations body has a 53-year history of involvement in all things nuclear: publishing studies, developing safety recommendations, promoting nuclear power and preventing radioactive fuel from being diverted to weapons production. With more than 2,000 staffers, the IAEA’s potential is vast.

What’s missing from the organization’s mission is a crisis fighter’s mentality and a mandate to act. As the agency’s chief, Yukiya Amano, conceded soon after the tsunami hit Japan, “We are not a nuclear safety watchdog.” On reactor-safety issues, the IAEA’s approach has been to offer voluntary guidelines, but not to interfere too aggressively in member states’ own regulatory reviews.

Such passivity won’t suffice. Calls for the IAEA to assume a much greater leadership role are now coming from a range of experts, including France’s environment minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the former U.S. nuclear adviser Harold Denton, and Viktor Murogov, a former deputy director of the Russian nuclear program. All have been blunt. As Murogov put it, the nuclear-power industry “won’t survive another accident like this.”

In June, the IAEA will meet to evaluate the consequences of Fukushima. Amano now acknowledges the need to move beyond “business as usual.” At that meeting, the agency’s chief should set a much bolder agenda, one that states that the IAEA will now:

-- Help set mandatory standards for safe operation of the world’s approximately 440 nuclear plants. Whether a reactor is in Armenia, Pakistan, France, South Africa or the U.S., its safety plans should comply fully with current-day knowledge of risks and safeguards.

-- Enforce those standards. The IAEA has won high marks for nuclear-plant inspections related to weapon-making concerns, even when it didn’t find signs of trouble (such as its Iraq inspections in the Saddam Hussein era.) As an independent agency free from industry pressures, it needs to bring that same zeal to safety reviews.

-- Improve rapid-response plans so that the best crisis experts can put their skills to work within hours of a major failure of reactor safety, no matter where it occurs. Some of the IAEA’s current approaches date to a flurry of concern immediately after Chernobyl, when rapid sharing of information via the Internet was barely a factor. There’s no excuse for staying so far behind the times.

A new IAEA could become a powerful international presence, overcoming the reputation for torpor and inefficiency that often is associated with UN agencies. Progress may require changes in its budget, funding mechanisms, sanctioning power and leadership. Transformation should begin with a fresh IAEA mandate from the UN, supported by the world’s leading nuclear-energy nations. As long as radiation’s danger transcends national boundaries, nuclear power’s top overseer needs to be able to do so, too.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley in Washington at mberley@bloomberg.net.