Among global organizations with close ties to the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is one of the most powerful.
This is because it can take actions that intrude on national sovereignty, such as inspections and surveillance.
Nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear facilities to make weapons are issues that affect all of mankind, and thus are intimately linked to international politics.
This is why the IAEA is often referred to as the world's "nuclear watchdog."
Even so, its powers are limited to preventing nations from diverting nuclear material intended for "peaceful purposes," such as electricity generation, to make nuclear weapons.
It cannot issue binding directives or warnings regarding "nuclear safety" that have no direct bearing on military usage.
An IAEA report issued in June 2011 on the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant sharply criticized Japanese authorities, saying, "the independence of the (Japanese) regulatory authority had not been improved as stipulated by the IAEA over the last three years."
As it happened, Japan was under no obligation to heed its suggestions.
"The IAEA is a 'watchdog' in the sense that it carries out inspections and surveillance, but in terms of nuclear safety it is not a 'watchdog,' but merely a 'cooperator,'" was how IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano describes its role.
Its gathering of information on nuclear accidents and dispatch of specialist teams all require the permission of the country in question.
Even the IAEA Convention on Early Notification created in response to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and its mutual assistance agreements are governed by this principle.
The Convention on Nuclear Safety that went into force in 1996 seeks the "attainment of international safety standards" from its signatories, but has no punitive regulations aimed at those that do not meet the IAEA's safety targets, and is clearly nonbinding in nature.
After the Fukushima disaster, the IAEA set out to augment the organization's authority with regard to nuclear safety. A proposal was presented to a ministerial-level meeting involving member states in June 2011 that suggested specialist teams should investigate the operating status, emergency procedures, and regulatory functions of 10 percent of the world's nuclear power plants, chosen at random.
However, in the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety approved at the IAEA General Conference in September, explicit references to "random inspections of 10 percent of nuclear plants" and "dispatches of inspection teams every 10 years" were drastically reduced.
The surprise safety inspections put forward in the original proposal became a system that countries could accept "voluntarily."
Not all the member states were against the IAEA being given stronger powers.
However, powerful member states made spirited assertions that "regulations should in principle be rooted in national sovereignty."
Emergent nations and developing countries that want to build nuclear power plants to meet rapidly increasing demand for energy objected to greater construction costs associated with tightened regulations.
The IAEA, an international organization that prides itself on consensus, had arrived at a rather muddled conclusion.
Currently, there are 430 nuclear power plants operating around the world. If a serious accident occurs, its impact will not be limited to a single country. International regulations, or national sovereignty? The debate is far from over.
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