By Geoff Brumfiel of Nature magazine

From the name, one might expect the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to have been a major force in the response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan. Instead, its performance was sluggish and sometimes confusing, drawing calls for the agency--an independent organization that advises the United Nations--to take a more proactive role in nuclear safety.

Ministers from the countries that oversee the IAEA will meet in June at the agency's head­quarters in Vienna to discuss lessons from the nuclear accident. A shake-up of the agency's function in emergencies is likely to be on the agenda. "The IAEA itself will acknowledge privately that it did not cover itself in glory," says James Acton, who studies nuclear policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. But nuclear experts say that the agency's complicated mandate and the constraints imposed by its member states are big obstacles to any major reforms.

Experts contacted by Nature agree that the IAEA must deal with emergencies more quickly than it has in Japan. Under a 1986 convention, member states are obliged to report certain details of any nuclear accidents to the agency, which has an Incident and Emergency Centre ready to respond. Accordingly, the IAEA was in touch with Japanese nuclear regulators within hours of the earthquake and tsunami that triggered several reactor shutdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant on 11 March. After a massive explosion rocked the unit 1 reactor the following day, the agency posted a series of brief statements on its website as the situation developed. But IAEA officials did not hold a press conference until 14 March, and its technical experts did not begin on-the-ground assessments for a full week.

Even after regular IAEA briefings began, they were often a mind-numbing string of temperatures, pressures and radiation readings, with little context. The agency's performance in this regard differs sharply from that of other United Nations groups, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva, Switzerland. During the first weeks of Japan's nuclear emergency, the WHO issued clear and reassuring statements about the health risks posed to citizens. After concentrations of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 rose to worrying levels in Tokyo tap water, it stated clearly that there was "no immediate health risk" to adults in the city. The IAEA, by contrast, simply repeated official statements from Japanese government authorities on its website.

"It should give its own independent assessment using all the information that is available," says Olli Heinonen, a nuclear expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If information isn't available, he adds, the agency "should seek it actively".

Yet seeking data in the middle of a nuclear emergency is not easy. "If you say to a reactor operator: 'Your reactor is melting down, please do not forget to fill in form 33b and fax it to the IAEA', they're not going to do it," says Andreas Persbo, a specialist in arms control at VERTIC, an independent organization based in London that verifies compliance to international agreements. But he adds that if member states were willing, automated systems could be used to send the IAEA valuable real-time data on conditions at a nuclear plant.

Remaking the IAEA in the image of more effective groups such as the WHO, or the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, would be no small task. The IAEA not only has a much smaller budget than the other international agencies (see 'A nuclear minnow'), but also has multiple and seemingly contradictory roles. Set up in 1957, the agency has 151 member states, 35 of which make up a board of governors that recommends budgets and policies to the rest of the members. The agency is a promoter of nuclear power, but at the same time guards against the spread of technology that could be used for nuclear weapons. It sets voluntary international standards for safety in civilian nuclear plants, and offers assistance in times of crisis.

The WHO, in contrast, has an explicit remit to provide information during natural outbreaks of disease that spread across borders. This means that nations in a threatened region are eager for its expert assessments, says Duncan Snidal, a expert in international relations at the University of Oxford, UK. The IAEA, in comparison, actively probes the nuclear endeavors of members, including any undeclared weapons programs, so they are reluctant to give it too much authority.

Nowhere has the IAEA's short leash been more apparent than in its International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. The agency introduced the numerical severity scale in 1990 to facilitate quick communication about nuclear accidents, but, bizarrely, it is national regulators that determine the rating of a particular emergency. Japan initially ranked the Fukushima crisis at level 5 by treating each reactor at the plant as a separate event, but a month after the event it grouped the reactors into a single incident and upped the rating to 7, the highest on the scale. The sudden change created confusion in the press and anxiety for the public, and showed just how inadequate the scale is, says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington DC.

Whether the IAEA can gain more independence to assess nuclear accidents is uncertain, but its emergency scale is very likely to be revisited given the confusing way in which it has been used. Some commentators have also called for a stronger IAEA that can enforce global safety standards or take control in an emergency, but Acton labels such ideas "insane". Nations might begin to feel that "safety is not our responsibility", he says. Moreover, a nuclear plant's operators are often better placed to handle a crisis than are outside officials unfamiliar with the facility. In any event, Acton doubts that countries will abdicate oversight of their reactors. "The whole thing is fanciful," he says.

Lewis says that a more outspoken IAEA could have dispelled some of the confusion around the impact of Fukushima. Japanese authorities played down the severity of the accident, for example, while US regulators on the scene described a much more frightening worst-case scenario. But if the IAEA is just one more voice in the tumult, "and if it is incompetent, then it makes everything much, much worse", Lewis adds.

It will ultimately be up to the member states to determine how much independence the IAEA will have in a future crisis. The agency's own position is unknown: it declined Nature's interview request for this story.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on April 26, 2011.