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30th Jan 2023

Brussels to renew push for EU-wide nuclear safety rules

  • The EU as a whole is the largest nuclear electricity generator in the world (Photo: IAEA)

As nuclear energy makes something of a comeback ready for the low-carbon age, the European Commission is dusting off its earlier failed plans to strengthen the safety of nuclear power plants operational in the EU territory.

On Wednesday (26 November), EU energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs kicked off a lengthy legislative process aimed at setting "basic obligations and general principles for the safety of nuclear installations, while enhancing the role of national regulatory bodies."

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According to Mr Piebalgs, legislation covering all member states is necessary in order to give legal certainty across the EU, as currently standardisation of safety requirements in the bloc have been "limited".

Under the proposed rules, the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety and the 2006 International Atomic Energy Agency Safety Fundamentals - which are currently both applied only in a voluntary fashion - would form the main pillar of EU-wide rules.

To "achieve, maintain and continuously improve nuclear safety," the EU's executive body has suggested a strengthening of the role of the regulatory bodies - institutions generally authorised by member states to grant licences and to supervise the siting, design, construction, commissioning, operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants.

The commission proposal says that EU states must ensure that the regulatory body be "effectively free from any influence" that may affect the safety and that it should have the power to halt operations or withdraw the licence of any plant if safety is at risk.

To improve its own functioning, the regulatory body also has to undergo "an international peer review" once at least every ten years.

This is not the first time that Brussels has tried to involve itself with the sensitive area of nuclear safety. Efforts on this front date back to 2003 and 2004, but none of the original proposals were ever enacted.

The executive body defends this new move by pointing to the fact that several EU states are now interested in either extending life span of their existing installations or in building new ones.

Currently, 15 member states operate nuclear power plants, delivering a one third of the union's electricity needs and making the EU as a whole the largest nuclear electricity generator in the world.

In addition, backers of nuclear energy are increasingly promoting it as a low-carbon energy source and a key weapon in the fight against climate change. Nuclear energy is also better shielded from price fluctuations compared to oil and gas, they argue.

As part of the proposed EU law, Brussels has also suggested to urgently step up efforts in training new safety inspectors, as many specialists are now approaching retirement.

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