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15th Nov 2019

EU reaches uneasy compromise over nuclear 'stress tests'

  • 14 EU member states produce nuclear energy (Photo: Nicholas Sideras)

The European Union has reached a broad agreement on the criteria for 'stress testing' the region's 143 nuclear power plants, the bloc's principle safety response following the accident at Japan's Fukushima power station.

EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger announced the compromise deal in Brussels on Wednesday (25 May), after weeks of wrangling between EU member states over whether to include terrorist strikes in the region-wide safety assessment.

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The government of non-nuclear Austria had insisted on their inclusion, backed up by Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently performed a sharp about-turn on nuclear energy as the anti-nuclear Greens surged ahead in the polls. France, the UK and the Czech Republic strongly opposed the idea.

The European Commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators' Group (Ensreg) eventually agreed to include both natural and man-made hazards in the tests, including the effects of an airplane crash into a nuclear power plant. Preventive measures for terrorist attacks will be dealt with separately, however.

"It seems to me that the quality of these stress tests is sufficient to fulfill the requirement of European citizens," Oettinger told journalists as he outlined the plans.

"Obviously there are different expectations in member states ... We've come up with comprehensive criteria. At the same time, we are not prepared to be a sort of 'off' switch [for nuclear plants]."

The tests will see a re-assessment of the safety margins used in the licensing of European nuclear power plants, checking for their ability to withstand a combination of natural disasters such as the earthquake and subsequent tsunami as happened in Japan.

Natural disasters will include earthquakes, flooding, extreme heat or cold, snow, ice, storms, tornadoes and heavy rain, taking in to account the previous seismic and meteorological history of a particular location. Man-made failures will include the ability of plants to withstand airplane crashes and explosions close to nuclear power plants.

Irrespective of the cause, power plants will have to prove that they have enough back-up power systems in place in case the power supply is cut for several days.

The tests are scheduled to start by 1 June at the latest, and will take place under a three-step process, starting with a pre-assessment by nuclear power plant operators using a questionnaire.

This will be followed up by a report by national regulators, checking whether the questionnaire answers are credible. International teams, including one commission expert and six from member states, will then review the national reports, including possible visits to plants. The commission will then report back to EU leaders in December.

Brussels is working to extend the assessments to other countries, in particular neighbouring EU states with nuclear installations such as Switzerland, Russia, Ukraine and Armenia.

The need for greater measures to prevent terrorist attacks, including fog-producing systems which hamper pilots attempting to target nuclear power plants, were outside Ensreg's competence and will therefore be assessed separately by national security experts, said Oettinger.

But the European Parliament's Green group was damning in its assessment of the final criteria. "Serious and binding stress tests ... would assess not only the risk of terrorist attacks but also technical problems caused through disruption of operation or the ageing of nuclear reactors," Green co-president Rebecca Harms said.

"However, this would raise fundamental questions about the safety of nuclear power. Instead we are left with alibi tests."

Environmental group Greenpeace was also scathing. "Europe looks set to get stress tests-lite for its aging nuclear power stations. These won't be independent, won't cover plans for emergencies and won't always tell us whether some of Europe's most obvious terrorist targets are protected or not," said EU nuclear policy adviser Jan Haverkamp.

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