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Foreign nuclear agencies take a watch-and-learn attitude

Anti-nuclear activists participate in a demonstration on March 17, 2011 in Sant Jaume square, in Barcelona.

Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images/Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

The earthquake shook Japan's coast and left a trail of destruction, toppling hundreds of homes, tearing up highways and bridges, and setting off a furious fire at the world's most powerful nuclear plant, raising fears of a meltdown.

In Paris, experts at the Nuclear Energy Agency watched disaster unfold from afar. In Vienna, officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency carefully mulled the situation. But it wasn't until months later - well after the crisis passed - that any of these experts actually hit the ground to conduct what amounted to a fact-finding mission.

The 6.8 magnitude that rocked Japan's Kashiwazaki nuclear plant in July, 2007, was a disaster less severe in scale and scope than what the country is now contending with at its Fukushima Daiichi power plant on the other side of the island. But the response by the international community of nuclear experts this time around has been remarkably similar.

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International nuclear agencies are allowing Japanese authorities to manage the immediate crisis until it's resolved, one way or the other. Their role will ratchet up in the aftermath, through fact-finding missions and the collection of "lessons learned" that will be applied to reactors around the world.

The strategy may seem counterintuitive in the face of a deepening crisis that appears like a cry for help.

As military fire trucks began spraying cooling water Thursday on fuel rods at the stricken nuclear facility after earlier efforts failed, there was a growing sense of alarm around the world over the prospect of a meltdown.

Yet, nuclear experts from foreign countries are hardly flocking to Fukushima to help. Analysts, meanwhile, maintain that's exactly the right response.

"The Japanese are highly qualified. They have one of the most advanced nuclear programs in the world and they know how to do this. They don't need any help from people," said Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based senior associate in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Because the Japanese are on the site, they know this reactor station better than anyone else and they know what they need to do to fix it," Mr. Hibbs continued.

Duncan Hawthorne, chief executive of Ontario's Bruce Power and a regional chairman with the World Association of Nuclear Operators, said the assumption that international nuclear experts could solve Japan's crisis amounted to arrogance.

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"Throwing more people at the problem is not going to solve it. It's not that kind of problem, especially if these new people don't know the language and are new to the site," Mr. Hawthorne said.

Instead, nuclear experts are largely monitoring the situation from a distance. There are a few exceptions, but even they have been late to the game.

The United States sent a second team to help Japanese authorities respond to the nuclear threat only on Wednesday. Its first team consisted of just two people. Yukiya Amano, director-general of the IAEA, said that an expert team from its agency would be sent as soon as possible, without specifying when. Canada, according to Mr. Hawthorne, does not plan to send any experts.

Meanwhile, many of the foreign agencies watching Japan are also reviewing the state of nuclear power plants in their own countries, where the disaster is having repercussions on policy.

On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a three-month moratorium on extending the operation periods for Germany's nuclear power plants. Switzerland also suspended its nuclear plans pending a safety review. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who initially refused to back away from nuclear power, later called for an analysis of the country's atomic sector.

Japan's crisis has also prompted calls for greater scrutiny of the nuclear energy ambitions in China, which is also prone to earthquakes and where concerns have been raised over safety standards.

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Nuclear analysts predicted the lessons learned from the crisis at Fukushima would include new regulations against constructing plants along coastlines and rules that cooling systems rely less on electrically driven pumps and valves that could fail during power cuts.

"The bottom line is that most of the international assistance on this won't come until after the problem at Fukushima is solved, for better or for worse" Mr. Hibbs said.

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