27th Jan 2022

EU divided over inclusion of plane crashes in nuclear tests

  • Nuclear plants must be tested for their ability to withstand a potential plane crash, says Austria (Photo: Graham van der Wielen)

EU member states are divided over the need to include airplane crashes as a criterion in European nuclear stress tests, currently being drawn up in response to Japan's accident.

Energy ministers met for informal talks at Godollo, Hungary, on Tuesday (3 May), with EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger conceding that the matter was still an "open question".

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A final decision on whether the voluntary stress tests should be limited to natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods is likely to be taken by national nuclear regulators next week.

Non-nuclear Austria, various green groups and some members of the European Parliament are adamant that 9/11-style plane strikes must be included if the tests are to be sufficiently credible to allay concerns.

"It should not be another alibi test," Austrian economy minister Reinhold Mitterlehner told journalists at a separate event on Tuesday.

But other member states, principally France, see the measure as excessively burdensome, fearing it could force the closure of plants that would otherwise be deemed fit for operation.

A latest draft of the stress test criteria - drawn up by the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association - says power plants must be able to withstand various extreme natural events, but makes no mention of plane crashes, reports the Wall Street Journal.

In March a large earthquake and subsequent tidal wave in Japan spelled disaster for the country's Fukushima plant, after an electricity cut halted the cooling of nuclear fuel rods.

The event prompted alarm among European citizens, with governments rapidly scrambling to reassess their nuclear policies.

Germany's Angela Merkel performed an abrupt u-turn, placing a temporary moratorium on several of the country's older plants, while Italy also recently put plans to erect new nuclear power stations on hold.

On Tuesday however, French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended the technology during a visit to a nuclear site in Normandy, calling a moratorium an "incomprehensible position". Other countries including the Czech Republic have also said they have no intention of backtracking on nuclear plans.

Once the criteria are finally agreed, the stress tests will be conducted by national authorities, but a decision has been taken yet on who will screen the results.

One possibility would be for two countries to study each others' reports, while another could see a team of independent experts carry out the analysis.

A new Harris poll commissioned by the Financial Times shows a significant rise in public concern over nuclear safety following events in Japan, with roughly half of citizens in France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the US citing greater apprehension.

Anxiety was highest in Germany, where 55 percent of respondents said they were more concerned.

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