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"I propose that countries with nuclear power should agree to systematic, periodic peer reviews by the IAEA," said Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA).
"The agency could conduct an international safety review of one nuclear power plant in 10 throughout the world over, say, a three-year period."
The EU has already agreed to undertake stress tests of European reactors' readiness for natural disasters and all man-made failures.
Amano proposed spot checks to ensure that nuclear plants can withstand extreme weather events, such as tsunamis and earthquakes. He was speaking at the opening of an IAEA conference in Vienna on 20 June.
But the idea may prove controversial with states that fear losing nuclear safety as a national competence.
Amano, a veteran Japanese diplomat, maintained that national governments would have the main investigatory task, but the UN agency would play a greater role, he said.
"An IAEA review of every one of the world's 440 operating nuclear reactors in just a few years is not a realistic proposition. I therefore propose a system based on random selection," he said.
Japan's crisis has prompted a rethink of energy policy around the world, underlined by Germany's decision to shut down all its reactors by 2022 and an Italian vote to ban nuclear power for decades.
At the 20-24 June meeting, IAEA member nations are charting a strategy for boosting global nuclear safety, amid differences on how much international action is needed, diplomats say.
Russia favours making the IAEA's safety standards more binding, and the country's nuclear energy chief, Sergei Kiriyenko, said Russia was "delighted" with Amano's proposals, but other countries were less enthusiastic.
Japanese officials have come under fire for their handling of the emergency and the authorities admitted that lax standards and poor oversight contributed to the accident.
Three reactors at the Japanese complex went into meltdown when power and cooling functions failed, causing radiation leakage and forcing the evacuation of some 80,000 people.
"Public confidence in the safety of nuclear power has been badly shaken," Amano said
"However, nuclear power will remain important for many countries, so it is imperative that the most stringent safety measures are implemented everywhere."
EurActiv with Reuters