Western safety standards? The IAEA Nuclear Safety Convention

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Agenda 2000: Will it increase nuclear safety in Eastern Europe?

(June 19, 1998) The statute of the IAEA authorizes the IAEA to "establish or adopt (...) standards of safety for the protection of health and the minimization of danger to life and property". However, it provides no basis for the IAEA to impose legally binding standards to its member-states, except where the IAEA itself provides materials, facilities or services. The primary responsibility for regulating the uses of nuclear power has traditionally rested with national authorities.
The IAEA has developed voluntary Codes of Practice for nuclear power plants relating to, among others, safety in design, safety in siting and safety in operation. After the accident in Chernobyl, the codes were revised and a new set was approved by the IAEA in June 1988. They, however, remain voluntary and address only the safety of nuclear power plants and not other types of nuclear installations.

In 1991 the German government proposed to turn the voluntary codes into binding international safety requirements. After several negotiations it was agreed upon in 1994 that the Nuclear Safety Convention would be a single instrument with its text based on rather general undertakings. The convention entered into force in October 1996 and still applies only to land-based civil nuclear power plants.
The convention does not set out mandatory safety standards for reactors nor does it contain provisions for sanctions in the event of a party failing to meet its obligations. It aims to commit participating states to achieve and maintain a high level of nuclear safety by setting international "benchmarks" to which states should subscribe.