Nineteenth Session

Rome, 13-16 April 2005

Preparedness for Nuclear Emergencies

1. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident highlighted the impact and long-term consequences of a major transboundary release of radioactive material. More effective regulatory mechanisms, training of operators and design modifications have improved the safety of nuclear power plants. Yet there remain continuing safety and security concerns related to the control of radioactive sources. Despite the level of attention given to this problem since September 2001, many countries still lack programmes, resources and legal frameworks to respond properly to the threat of nuclear and radiological emergencies.

2. As at 31 August 2004, there were 439 nuclear power reactors in operation in 30 countries and an additional 26 units are under construction in 10 countries1. The five nuclear-weapon states are estimated to have 16 500 operational and a total of 36 500 active and inactive warheads2. These have institutional security systems to protect them from theft and malevolent use. However there is concern about the possible use of a radiological dispersal device or ‘dirty bomb’ that could contaminate land and/or facilities. Radioactive materials for such devices are available from a wide range of less secure facilities, including those in industry, hospitals, medical and research laboratories, universities and waste dumps. Given widespread public anxiety about nuclear material in any form, the mere threat of such use of radioactive materials could be a potent terrorist tool. The same considerations would apply to attacks on nuclear power facilities, reprocessing facilities or on shipments of nuclear materials.

3. The immediate (24 hours) and short-term (one-month period) impact of a nuclear emergency can be effectively mitigated if emergency response plans in relation to food and agriculture are in place. Scientists estimated that of the 2000 thyroid cancers that occurred among children contaminated after Chernobyl, 90 percent would have been avoided if consumption of contaminated milk had been banned. By controlling the ingestion of contaminated fresh vegetables, a further reduction of 50 percent would have been obtained, pushing down the number of excess thyroid cancers to 100. It is therefore essential that member countries plan in advance how the most contaminated products3 will be taken out of consumption and/or stored in appropriate facilities for eventual disposal or destroyed through appropriate procedures.

4. In the medium- and longer-term, sustaining acceptable living and working conditions in contaminated areas will require practical and cost-effective strategies for restoring and managing contaminated agricultural land and food products. These strategies need to consider a wide range of factors: timing and nature of countermeasures; site-specific factors such as soil properties, root systems and land uses; quantity and composition of the radionuclides in the release (particularly long-life radionuclides); pathways of radionuclide exposure for each population group; and cost and duration of countermeasure application. The feasibility of these strategies and their acceptability to stakeholders should be considered beforehand.

5. The Safety Requirements for Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency4 cite the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s guideline levels for radionuclides in food moving in international trade following accidental contamination as generic action levels. The competent management authority should specify intervention levels for use in emergency situations in advance. Appropriate remedial action should be taken if the maximum permissible level is exceeded or is predicted to be exceeded. The Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission is the international standards setting body responsible for the protection of human health and facilitation of international trade in foodstuffs. The current Codex Guideline Levels for Radionuclides in Foods Following Accidental Nuclear Contamination for Use in International Trade5 that apply for one year following a nuclear accident, are currently being revised to cover a wider range of situations and to serve as generic intervention levels for a year or more following a nuclear or radiological event6.

6. FAO is full party to two conventions: (i) the notification convention7 which requires the Accident Country to notify and provide information to potentially affected countries and the IAEA. The IAEA must report the notification and provide information to Member Countries and International organizations; and (ii) the assistance convention8 which enables any national Government to request emergency assistance from IAEA and/or other parties including: assessment and advice; field assistance, including monitoring; and medical treatment. The IAEA provides/brokers assistance through ERNET9 and relevant international organizations, including FAO. The Joint Radiation Emergency Management Plan of the International Organizations is a high-level management document that describes the inter-agency framework for preparedness and response to an actual, potential or perceived nuclear emergency and specifies the roles and responsibilities of each international agency. The practical arrangements between FAO and IAEA for notification, information exchange and provision of technical support in relation to food and agriculture in the case of a nuclear or radiological emergency and its aftermath have been described in the FAO/IAEA Cooperative Arrangements, which were signed into force on 25 April 2003. Under the Arrangement, the Director of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division (AGE) is FAO's designated Warning Point.

7. To fulfil its commitment, FAO is undertaking a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening its support to member countries in the case of such an event:

8. Since Member States have the ultimate responsibility to protect life, property, the environment and quality of life on their territories, preparedness plans are essential and involve planning how to respond and network resources effectively in the event of a nuclear emergency. Research and case studies have so far been limited to countries affected by Chernobyl and developed countries. There is a need to focus now on developing countries. While it is recognized that agricultural countermeasures would differ from one country to another, depending on national capacity, existing regulations, production systems, location of nuclear plants, FAO can assist member countries to develop a strategy for promoting and enhancing preparedness for any nuclear event in relation to food and agriculture. To date, the primary mechanisms have been workshops on practical agricultural countermeasures organized by AGE and information resources under the AGE website10. Increasingly, harmonized distance learning materials will complement these approaches.

9. In conclusion, there has been a shift in priority from recovery to preparedness, with more emphasis being placed on the need to protect in advance of a nuclear emergency. At present there are only 92 States party to the Early Notification Convention and 89 States party to the Assistance Convention or less than half of FAO Member States. Thus an important first step in strengthening international nuclear emergency preparedness is the ratification of the early notification and assistance conventions by all FAO and IAEA Member States. The next step is the implementation of national emergency preparedness plans to minimize gaps in regional food safety and security.




3 In the case of Chernobyl these were milk, fresh vegetables, mushrooms and berries.


5 Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme, Codex Alimentarius Commission, Codex Alimentarius, Volume 1 (1991), Section 6.1 (CAC/GL 5-1989)


7 The Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (

8 The Convention on Assistance in the Case of Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency (

9 The IAEA Emergency Response Network (ERNET) is a network consisting of emergency response teams based in various Member States and drawing on regional emergency response capabilities.