[This article is adopted from author's invited testimony before the U.S. Commission on Improving the Effectiveness of the United Nations, February 1, 1993.]

The Critical Role of the United Nations in Ensuring the Safety of Nuclear Power Plants Around the World

Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed (William James).


The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident on April 26, 1986, in the former Soviet Union, demonstrated, for the first time, that the effects of any such nuclear accident are not localized, but rather spill over into neighboring countries and have global consequences. The radioactive fallout resulting from Chernobyl was detected all over the world, from Finland to South Africa. Specifically, the Europeans, in addition to serious health concerns, have had to deal with significant economic losses and serious, long-lasting environmental consequences (see below). This phenomenon has been described most succinctly as a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere.

The Chernobyl accident, along with other documented serious incidents at nuclear power plants around the world, should hammer home the notable American philosopher William James' assertion that the world's nations should utilize their common resources -- the U.N. system -- more efficiently and proactively.

Catastrophic Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident

Magnitude of the Accident

According to Chernousenko (1992), the Chernobyl accident released 80 percent of the lethal contents contained in the reactor core, rather than the 3 percent figure announced to the world The released radiation was roughly equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs (Gould, 1993)

Human Losses

"An estimated 20 million (former) Soviets were exposed to radioactivity released at Chernobyl" (Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1992).

The accident may yet cause up to 300,000 deaths (The Economist, April 27, 1991)

The Chernobyl accident may ultimately claim more victims than did World War II [Read (1993)]

In the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia: There is twice the normal rate of birth defects among those living in the vicinity of the plant. Thyroid glands of more than 150,000 people were "seriously affected" by doses of radioactive iodine (Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1989).

Belarus' birth rate had fallen 50 percent as a result of the accident (Foreign Minister Uladzimir Syanko at the U.N. General Assembly, Reuters, September 26, 1995).

800,000 children are at risk of contracting leukemia (Greenpeace Magazine, January/February 1991)

The United States has not been immune from Chernobyl's fallout: the "Effects of the Chernobyl accident were even apparent in the small but statistically significant excess mortality in the U.S. in May 1986" (Gould, 1993, p. 322).

Environmental and other Damages

The radioactive fallout resulting from Chernobyl was detected all over the world, from Finland to South Africa. There are two million acres of land in Belarus and Ukraine, comprising 20 percent of their farmland, which now cannot be exploited because of the Chernobyl accident (Insight, January 15, 1990).

Nearly 10,000 farms and more than four million sheep were affected by the fall-out from the Chernobyl accident in certain parts of the United Kingdom. Since June 20, 1986 areas of Cumbria, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland made up the 'restricted zone', wherein controls were put on the movement and slaughter of sheep. Even nine years after the accident, farmers within restricted areas cannot move sheep from their farms without the consent of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (Daily Telegraph, April 22, 1995)

One-fifth (1/5) of the republic of Belarus' more than 10 million people have to be moved from areas contaminated by radiation, including 27 cities and more than 2,600 villages (Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1990).


$26 billion is allotted for the resettlement of the 200,000 people still living in the irradiated areas (New York Times, April 26, 1990).

It may end up costing $400 billion and it will take up to 200 years to "totally wipe out" the effects of the accident in the affected areas (Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1990).

According to a senior Ukrainian parliament deputy, erasing the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe would cost up to $600 billion (Financial Times, April 21, 1995).

Coping with the after-effects of the catastrophe had devoured more than 20 percent of Belarus's national budget (Foreign Minister Uladzimir Syanko at the U.N. General Assembly, Reuters, September 26, 1995).

A Few Facts about the Role and Status of Nuclear Power in the World

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a total of 429 nuclear (power) reactors were reported operational and additional 67 were being built (IAEA Newsbriefs, February/March 1994).

Developing countries' present share of the world's installed nuclear power plants is 7.1%. A total of 21 developing countries either have nuclear power plant(s) in operation, or have plant(s) in the construction or planning stages (IAEA Newsbriefs, February 1989).

Nuclear energy production will grow an average of 3.3 to 4.2% per year worldwide from 1988-2005 (IAEA Newsbriefs, September 1989).

The estimated average annual growth rate of nuclear power production for developing countries in the Middle East and South Asia (combined) is 19.5-24.2 percent. The estimated average annual growth rate to nuclear power production for developing countries in Latin America is 12.8-16.5 percent (IAEA Newsbriefs, August/September 1990).

The share of nuclear energy in electricity generation for the Ukraine is 25% (15 units, reactors); Russia 11.8% (29 units, reactors); the Czech Republic 20.7% (4 units, reactors); Bulgaria 32.5% (6 units, reactors all at Kozloduy plant); Lithuania 80% (2 units, at Ignalina) [IAEA Bulletin, 1/1994]; and Armenia 25% in normal times; 50% when there is no oil and gas (2 units, reactors at Mezamor) [The New York Times, August 17, 1993].

The Problem: 58 Former Soviet Designed Reactors

Out of the 429 aforementioned nuclear reactors, 58 are Soviet-designed nuclear reactors, including 16 Chernobyl-type reactors, operating in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Finland. With the exception of the two reactors in Finland that have Western-style safety features, "virtually all the 58 Soviet-built nuclear reactors, a seventh of the world's total, strung across four countries and three former Soviet republics, lack basic safety equipment.... Western engineers believe that at least 26 of these reactors should be closed as soon as possible" (The Economist, August 15, 1992). Environmental Ministers from the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized countries "sounded an alarm over risks posed by potentially unsafe reactors in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union." Italy's Environment Minister, Mr. Valdo Spini has said: "Nuclear power plants in the area are a serious and alarming problem" (Reuter, March 13, 1994).

Even Alexei V. Yablokov, President Yeltsin's counselor for ecological affairs, has stated that all the commercial nuclear reactors operating on Russian territory are nothing better than "bombs temporarily generating electricity" (Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1992). Former President of France, Mr. Fran¨ois Mitterrand, has also shared this view and said, here were "dozens of nuclear power stations which could explode at any moment" in the former Soviet Union (Independent, May 18, 1994). The French Nuclear Safety and Protection Institute has issued an alarming report calling for "immediate closure" of Chernobyl's (2-3) operating reactors (Independent, May 18, 1994). However, when considering these reactors' significant contribution and their share of electricity generation in their respective countries, as mentioned above, their closure seems not to be feasible and are not supported by the general public in those countries.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers these reactors "worrisome, even with the safety improvements that have been made since the Chernobyl accident" (GAO, November 1991, p. 29). A senior engineer at Electricite de France (EDF) estimates that more than 90% of the risks associated with global nuclear accidents can be attributed to the 16 operating Chernobyl-type reactors (The Economist, August 15, 1992). Moreover, "the director of nuclear safety of the IAEA says that we can expect a major nuclear accident to occur roughly every ten years" (Greenpeace Magazine, January/February, 1991).

At the G-7 summit in Munich in the summer of 1992, America, Japan and the E.C. pledged a total of $525 million for safety improvements of nuclear reactors based in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. However, existing arrangements for the development and implementation of necessary improvements are plagued by political gridlock among contributing parties and bureaucracy that has produced only delays. This situation has culminated in the American and Japanese sentiment for a "direct country to country approach, with nothing more international than a forum to prevent duplication or neglect" (The Economist, August 15, 1992).

U.N.'s Arm for the Safety of Nuclear Plants: IAEA, its Past and Present

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is an autonomous intergovernmental organization within the U.N. system, founded in 1957 in accordance with a decision of the General Assembly of the U.N. Its Statutory mandate is "to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world." Since its conception, IAEA has predominately been concerned with the Safeguard's activities. The aim of these activities is to assist member states in demonstrating their compliance with international obligations in the interest of preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. In addition to on-site inspections, the implementation of safeguards includes electronic surveillance and other technical measures for verifying the peaceful use of nuclear materials and installations. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, IAEA currently has 112 member states and its policy-making bodies are the Board of Governors and the General Conference. The Board has 35 members, of which 13 are designated by the Board itself while 22 are elected by the General Conference.

IAEA's Problems & Shortcomings

Coordinating efforts for improving the safety of nuclear power plants around the world is a monumental task which requires a systematic approach and an institutionalized resource mobilization. This clearly indicates the vital role that the whole U.N. system and more specifically the IAEA must play in leading, streamlining and coordinating international efforts. The organization that would presumably spearhead the above efforts, of course, should be the IAEA. However, the IAEA is saddled by the following major problems and until unresolved, it is neither equipped nor capable of accomplishing its global mission of ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants around the world:

Political Problems

Resource Problems

Structural Problems and Role Ambiguity (Safeguard, Safety, Technical Assistance)

Political Problems

Like the other forty plus specialized agencies of the U.N., the IAEA's operation is influenced by such variables as the interests of the member states, their relative power (of the purse) and foreign policy objectives. These variables are not necessarily compatible with the spirit of ensuring the safety of a large-scale, hazardous technological system -- a nuclear power plant. In fact, political rivalry or mistrust among member states, earmarking key positions for nationals of certain Western countries, and their pressure to maintain this tradition, have seriously plagued IAEA's technical work. Moreover, the IAEA's personnel section practice which is based on the quota system or 'geographical distribution' could also compromise technical expertise for the 'politically correct' policy.

Resource Problems

The IAEA's total budget for 1989 was about $157 million, of which only about 3.4% was used for the Safety of Nuclear Installation, whereas 13.7% was allotted for Secretariat and Administration and 34.5% for the Safeguards Program (The Agency's Programme and Budget for 1989 and 1990, p. 3). The total budget for 1992 was about $173.9 million and only about 5.6% ($9.9 million) was used for the Safety of Nuclear Installation. 35% ($61.2 million) was spent for Administration and 34.1% ($59.4 million) for the Safeguards Program [U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) (1993, September, p. 3)].

IAEA's Budget for Safety of Nuclear Installations (1991-93)

Dollars in millions

Budget activity




Approved Budget




Program Reductions




Funds available




Source: U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) (1993, September). Nuclear Nonproliferation and Safety: Challenges Facing the International Atomic Energy Agency. (GAO/NSIAD/RCED-93-284) (p. 63)

Structural Problems and Role Ambiguity (Safeguard, Safety, Technical Assistance)

Since the Chernobyl accident, the IAEA has tried also to become a "safety agency," an action that should be commended. For instance, since 1986, the IAEA has updated its nuclear safety standards to incorporate the lessons learned from the Chernobyl accident and has developed a set of safety principles to help achieve higher levels of safety at nuclear power plants. Additionally, its International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG) has published a report on an extremely important topic -- Safety Culture (1991). However, the use of either safety standards or principles by member states is optional. At a diplomatic conference in June 1994, IAEA member states adopted a Convention on Nuclear Safety. Objectives of this convention are "1- to achieve and maintain a high level of nuclear safety worldwide through the enhancement of national measures and international co-operation including, where appropriate, safety-related technical cooperation; 2- to establish and maintain effective defenses in nuclear installations against potential radiological hazards in order to protect individuals, society and the environment from harmful effects of ionizing radiation from such installations; and 3- to prevent accidents with radiological consequences and to mitigate such consequences should they occur." Despite this very positive step, there is still no clear consensus by IAEA member states about making compliance with the safety standards mandatory.

The IAEA has neither a comprehensive research plan for nuclear power safety nor adequate resources to fund such a plan. For instance, in Summary Report on the Post-Accident Review Meeting on the Chernobyl Accident , (INSAG-1, 1986, p. 76) [this document has recently been updated: The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1 (INSAG-7, 1992)]; the IAEA made explicit acknowledgments and assertions that: "The root cause of the Chernobyl accident, it is concluded, is to be found in the so-called human element....The lessons drawn from the Chernobyl accident are valuable for all reactor types" and also that "The Chernobyl accident illustrated the critical contribution of the human factor in the nuclear safety" (Nuclear Safety Review for 1987, p. 43). Despite all these comments and conclusions, the IAEA has yet to adopt and launch a viable (research) program to understand the human factors causes of nuclear power plant incidents and/or accidents and, as an unfortunate result, a thorough human factors analysis of the Chernobyl accident is not available. [The most comprehensive analysis of the overall causes of the Chernobyl accident is presented by Medvedev (1991), Chernousenko (1992), and Reed (1993). The author's study (Meshkati, 1991), however, by utilizing available sources, is a brief analysis of the human factors-related causes of this accident.]

The IAEA, like the United States' Atomic Energy Commission and to some extent its successor, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), has primarily been set up to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Moreover, after serious nuclear accidents, both the NRC and the IAEA were asked to take additional and critical (new) responsibility in nuclear safety for which they were neither created nor structured. The following critique, once said about the NRC could equally be said about the IAEA: The NRC's chief job since the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant accident in the U.S. in 1979, "has become that of policing operations and correcting the human errors which account for most nuclear accidents. It has become a safety agency, but without the capability of swift action of the other national safety agencies... The NRC also lacks the ability to investigate itself independently" (emphasis added) (The Economist, May 9, 1987).

As mentioned before, the IAEA's Statutory mandate is "to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world." There is an inherent conflict between this mandate of the IAEA which calls for technical assistance and information sharing on one hand and the provisions of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Safeguard activities on the other hand.

The IAEA's Need for Improvement

In order to improve the IAEA, its organizational culture should be changed in such a fashion to address the high priority of safety-related activities in the agency. In fact, the IAEA should follow and internally adopt what it preaches concerning the concept of the safety culture: "Safety culture is that assembly of characteristics and attitudes in organizations and individuals which establishes that, as an overriding priority, nuclear plant safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance." (emphasis added) [from Safety Culture by the IAEA (1991, p. 4)].

The IAEA's important role in achieving greater international nuclear power plant safety has also been acknowledged by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO, 1991). In response to a request for information by the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, GAO has recommended that the IAEA should be given more discretion and authority in development, adoption and enforcement of uniform safety standards for nuclear power plants. In another report, GAO (1993), has acknowledged the IAEA's key role in nuclear safety, and has stated: "To enable IAEA to more fully fund safety activities within the regular budget, its member states would have to assign a higher priority to the safety program" (p. 66). Both GAO reports, however, have stopped short of making any serious recommendations concerning the need for organizational restructuring of the IAEA.


Recommendations for improving the IAEA are twofold; Political and Philosophical Change (of Paradigm) and Structural Change. They call for, a)- to the extent possible, de-coupling safety-related issues from the safeguard programs and other politically-charged problems; and b)- a structural re-alignment of the agency to address the needed organizational dimensions for implementations of its new organizational (safety) culture and to enable it to perform its new global safety roles.

The IAEA's mission has changed and in order to handle the new global challenges facing it, the IAEA should be restructured in the most efficient form. The task at hand demands the conception of one unit, within the U.N. system (probably in the IAEA), solely dedicated and authorized to make the necessary proactive decisions concerning international nuclear safety. Above all, this requires leadership and initiative from the Secretary General, managerial and organizational skill from the Director General of the IAEA, and the cooperation of the member states. It is suggested that Nuclear Safety, which presently is one of the four sections under the Department of Nuclear Energy and Safety, be elevated to the same level as the Safeguards in the IAEA organizational chart (see IAEA's organizational chart).

IAEA's Organizational Chart

This newly created "Department of Nuclear Safety" should report directly to the Director General of the Agency and its budget should be proportional to, and reflect the depth and breath of its global responsibilities and activities.

This new Department of Nuclear Safety should, at least, be composed of Research, Operation, Inspection and Compliance divisions. The role and contribution of research in identifying the root causes of nuclear power plant incidents and accidents should be clearly defined and its findings be adopted.

The Role of Secretary General of the U.N.

The Secretary General is the individual who will certainly be most instrumental in developing the strategy to convince the member states, reformulate the new mission of the IAEA, to restructure the Agency's organization and to achieve its desired level of operational effectiveness. This may sound like a colossal job, but it is quite consistent with the historical high expectations of the Secretary General office, which is "a kind of a secular pope" or, according to the late Dag Hammarskjold, is "the most impossible job in the world." Among all the incumbents and contenders for the post of Secretary General in the past, only Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan has clearly articulated his understanding, vision and position on the critical issue of large-scale technological accidents. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for 12 years and later the Executive Delegate of the Secretary General for humanitarian programs for Iraq, Kuwait, and the Iraq/Turkey and Iraq/Iran border areas. Actually, Prince Aga Khan received more votes than Mr. Pˇrez de Cuˇllar from the General Assembly in the 1981 election for Secretary General, but was vetoed by the Communist leaders of the (former) Soviet Union for his humane and liberal positions (The New York Times, August 6, 1991). Prince Aga Khan has said: "The most widespread danger is of industrial disasters. What happened in Bhopal or, more recently, in Basel, can happen in many other countries many times over" (Forbes, June 15, 1987, p. 103).

Thus, because of the urgency of the safety problems of nuclear plants and other hazardous industrial facilities and the additional, critical future role of the Secretary General in organizing and coordinating the international efforts, in the next round of selecting a new Secretary General in 1996, the General Assembly and the Security Council should pay much more attention to the candidates' understanding and appreciation of these issues, particularly, their track record, plans, managerial skills, and direct experience with U.N. specialized agencies.

This additional role for the IAEA and its suggested high profile, proactive involvement in enforcement and ensuring compliance with the international nuclear safety standards in affected countries, is neither different nor inconsistent with the overall and "inevitable" new character of the U.N. missions which, according to Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary General, are becoming "increasingly complex and intrusive" (New York Times, January 25, 1993).

Concluding Remarks

The above constitutes only a necessary step toward ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants around the world. To make it sufficient, in the long-run, we need much greater commitment, communication and cooperation among those who could make these systems safer -- the member states' governments and regulatory agencies, plant manufactures, operators, managers, unions, and concerned research communities. We need an overall paradigm shift in dealing with nuclear power technology, safety and operation.

Finally, we need the genuine dedication of all parties in and out of the U.N. system, not rhetorical, diplomatic, political or public relations ploys for this collective effort. As professed by the late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, in the context of a serious technological system's accident, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.


Chernousenko, V. (1992). Chernobyl: Insight From the Inside. Berlin/New York: Springer-Verlag.

Feynman, R.P. (1986). Personal Observations on reliability of Shuttle. In the Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (Vol. II). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

General Accounting Office (GAO) (1991, November). Nuclear Power Safety: Chernobyl Accident Prompted Worldwide Actions but Further Efforts Needed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. GAO (GAO/NSIAD-92-28).

General Accounting Office (GAO) (1993, September). Nuclear Nonproliferation and Safety: Challenges Facing the International Atomic Energy Agency. Washington, D.C.: U.S. GAO (GAO/NSIAD/RCED-93-284).

Gould, J.A. (1993). Chernobyl: The hidden tragedy. The Nation, (March 15), 331-334.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (1992). The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1 (INSAG-7), Vienna: IAEA.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (1991). Safety Culture. (Safety Series No. 75-INSAG-4), Vienna: IAEA.

Medvedev, G. (1991). The Truth about Chernobyl. New York: Basic Books.

Meshkati, N. (1991). Human Factors in Large-Scale Technological Systems' Accidents: Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Chernobyl. Industrial Crisis Quarterly, 5, 133-154.

Munipov, V.M. (1990). Human engineering analysis of the Chernobyl accident. Unpublished manuscript. Moscow: The USSR Scientific and Research Institute of Industrial Design (VNIITE).

Read, P.P. (1993). Ablaze: The story of the heroes and victims of Chernobyl. New York: Random House.