18th Mar 2018

EU nuclear reactors fall short on safety

  • Nuclear power plants throughout the EU do not meet international safety standards to varying degrees. (Photo: wikipedia)

Nuclear power plants across most of the EU require immediate upgrades to ensure their safety in face of cataclysmic events, said the European Commission on Thursday (4 October).

EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger told reporters in Brussels that safety standards on the whole were satisfactory, but noted "that nearly everywhere there is a major potential for improvement."

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"We certainly have not come to the end of the road yet," he added.

The comments come after media last week obtained a leaked draft an EU paper on nuclear stress tests which outlines, country by country, the safety standards at the 145 reactors in the EU.

The study was an 18-month, three-stage endeavour which looked at nuclear power plants in 15 member states plus Ukraine and Switzerland.

Nuclear operators carried out the initial self-assessment and their reports were then scrutinised by national regulators.

The final reporting stage involved a peer-review assessment by experts from both nuclear and non-nuclear states organised by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (Ensreg), a group of senior officials from the national nuclear regulatory authorities from all 27 member states.

The commission and peer review teams also conducted on site inspections on 54 of the reactors.

“The conclusions are based exclusively on the technical experts by Ensreg and ourselves. There was absolutely no political influence,” said Oettinger.

The report found the risk calculation in the event of an earthquake falls short among 54 reactors while 62 fail in the event of flooding.

Safety equipment is improperly stored among 81 reactors and 24 have no backup emergency control room should the main control room become contaminated or inaccessible.

On-site seismic instruments are required or need upgrading at 121 reactors.

Thirty-four reactors, located respectively in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom have no containment filtered venting systems in case of accident.

Ensreg described implementing the integrity of containment units as "urgent." Water-cooled reactors, noted the group, require specialised equipment to prevent hydrogen explosions and containment overpressure.

"The Fukushima disaster highlighted once again the importance of the containment function, which is critical, as the last barrier to protect the people and the environment against radioactive releases resulting from a nuclear accident," said Ensreg in a report released in July.

Costs estimates to retrofit the reactors and bring them up to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) safety standards range from €10 billion to €25 billion, said the commission.

Oettinger pointed out that some of the recommendations to retro-fit power plants had been made decades ago, following the Chernobyl and Three-mile island nuclear catastrophes, but never implemented.

"Measures should be taken that were possible decades ago," he noted.

The commission now wants member states to draw up national actions plans with timetables to implement the recommendations before the end of the year.

Greenpeace said the EU stress tests fail to consider terrorists attacks, the age of the plants, and emergency plans offsite that included evacuating nearby populations.

"They ignored the ageing of plants which is actually a major factor in how reliable nuclear plants are," said Jack Hunter, a spokesperson at Greenpeace office in Brussels.

He noted that Belgium recently shut down two 40-year old reactors because of recently discovered cracks in their reactor vessels. The cracks were found months after the nuclear stress tests had been performed.

"This was missed entirely [by the nuclear stress tests], basically because they were looking at it on paper. It’s a known issue that radiation accelerates fatigue of things," said Hunter.

For its part, the commission said the risk of terrorist attacks was not assessed because it falls outside its mandate.

The task was instead undertaken by an Ad Hoc Group on Nuclear Security (AHGNS) set up in July 2011 by the Council to deal with the security of nuclear power plants.

AHGNS concluded its evaluation with a report issued in June that outlined a list of "32 good practices."

The Brussels-executive along with Ensreg will also launch an initial study to assess member state off-site safety plans.

Meanwhile, Oettinger said he wants to explore setting up a draft legislation on nuclear insurance and liability in case of disaster.

The commission wants to conduct a market analysis with insurance companies and will make a proposal next year. The additional costs, noted Oettinger, would be passed onto the consumer.

The commission will also review the EU nuclear safety directive in February.

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