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23rd Oct 2020

EU to 'stress test' its nuclear energy plants

  • Events in Japan have led to heated debate over the safety of Europe's nuclear energy sector (Photo: Nicholas Sideras)

EU member states have agreed to a series of Europe-wide 'stress tests' on the region's nuclear power plants, EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger has said.

The decision was taken at a meeting of member state, industry and national regulatory officials in Brussels on Tuesday (15 March), hastily convened by the German commissioner following events in Japan.

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"We want to organise a series of tests, very comprehensive tests throughout the Union ... We also want tests for our partner states, our neighbours," Oettinger told journalists after the meeting.

The tests are likely to assess the risks that earthquakes, tsunamis, terror attacks and power cuts pose to European nuclear plants. Other variables are set to include the suitability of cooling systems and operational activities, the requirements for back-up systems, and overall plant design.

EU examinations will be carried out before the end of this year, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreeing to take the matter up at the G20 level, said Oettinger.

He added that EU leaders meeting in Brussels next week were also likely to discuss the issue of nuclear safety.

Decisions on whether to use nuclear energy are taken by individual EU member states. At present there are roughly 150 reactors in the 27-member bloc, spread over roughly half as many nuclear power plants.

On Monday the German government decided to delay plans to extend the life of seven nuclear plants until an independent review is carried out. Johannes Teyssen, CEO of E.ON, one of Europe's largest energy companies, said the decision did increase energy supply risks in the country, but added that the seven plants were small compared to others.

Teyssen added that placing a moratorium on extending the life of nuclear power plants produced before 1980, the criterion used in Germany, did not make sense on a Europe-wide basis. "It was not a design-change year," he told reporters after attending Tuesday's meeting.

Other countries including France, Spain and Italy have said they are unlikely to reduce their reliance on nuclear energy.

EU member states are required to comply with a 2009 EU directive of nuclear safety standards, with the deadline for full implementation set for July of this year. A lack of EU competence means the 'stress tests' will be carried out on a voluntary basis.

"Over the course of the next week we in the commission will organise further meetings to come up with proposals for how and when stress tests with common standards and criteria can be carried out for purposes of safety in the light of knowledge gleaned from the terrible events in Japan," said Oettinger.

"We will want to use the best criteria from member states. The specifics of the test will be different from plant to plant ... obviously plants on the coast will be tested for tsunami resistance more than those at higher altitudes ... but the tests will be carried out at EU level."

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