The report, published yesterday (24 November), proposes coordinated cross-border nuclear risk management plans across Europe, extended transparency obligations on nuclear plant operators, and a new safety regime.
“An EU-wide set of criteria for the definition of site characteristics, licensing requirements and operational checks would require plant operators to converge towards best practices for new nuclear power plants that are to be built in the EU,” the report says.
While such measures already exist in international legislation and some EU practices, a choice of technical measures “could be brought into the EU legislative acquis [the EU common rights and obligations which bind all member states],” it says.
The stress test process was announced by the Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger in the wake of the Japanese disaster to assess the safety procedures in Europe’s 143 reactors. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station was heavily damaged in the 11 March tsunami.
The testing is intended to measure whether nuclear power plants can withstand the effects of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods.
The EU says it will also assess whether plants can withstand human failures and accidents, including airplane crashes and terror attacks.
But these may not be considered as accident "initiating actions" within the technical scope of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), which is conducting the survey, along with national nuclear plant operators.
Member states have until the end of the year to submit their final risk and safety assessment reports to the Commission. Peer reviews will then be carried out by April 2012, and a final report will be submitted to the European Council of 28-29 June 2012.
The new interim report is a halfway measurement.
An earlier draft of the document, dated 28 October, used stronger language, proclaiming that “there is clearly scope to improve the nuclear safety framework in the EU” and citing an apparent “need” for legislative proposals.
The published version was toned down, but still contains proposals that EurActiv understands could oblige plant operators to provide greater public access to information about nuclear accidents.
Transparency requirements could be extended “beyond existing general obligations to inform the public and employees of nuclear operators,” the report says.
National regulatory authorities could also be impelled “to inform the public on the reasons behind their regulatory decisions,” although confidentiality clauses would protect information with “security implications”.
The prospect of greater openness was welcomed by the former German nuclear safety chief, Wolfgang Renneberg. “That would be something very useful,” he told EurActiv from Berlin.
“Until now, there has been no transparency [in the nuclear industry]. They are always talking about that but in reality there’s nothing so this would be a big step forward if it happens,” he added.
Renneberg produced a separate report for the Green Party earlier this week, criticising the EU’s use of experts drawn from the national ranks of nuclear operators and regulators, with an ‘initiating event’ brief limited to earthquakes and floods.
As a result, “the whole process is open to abuse,” his report said.
But one of the regulators involved in the EU report, an employee in the non-operator section of the nuclear industry, told EurActiv on condition of anonymity that “what was implemented in the stress test was very stringent.”
“We took into account the total loss of electricity for long periods, what happens when prevention fails, and we studied how to deal with civil accident management if the situation goes wrong,” he said.
“All these levels can give confidence to the public,” he said.
“That is our biggest fear,” Jan Haverkamp, the nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace, said in a telephone intervew from Prague, “that overall these stress test will be used to say ‘everything’s ok so you can sleep easy now.'”
According to Renneberg, “the experts are not fully independent. The operators have clear interests – to operate their plants – and they don’t want to make costly investments for plant backfitting [investing in safety after a plant is licensed] or refurbishments, so relying on them is not a sound basis [for safety assessment].”
“The results may be arbitrary,” he added.
EU sources tacitly acknowledged the potential for shortcomings by underlining that the forthcoming peer review process will “increase the credibility and flexibility” of the national exercise.
EurActiv understands that the peer review teams will be made up of former nuclear safety regulators, many currently employed by the EU’s Joint Research Centre.
The material provided to them so far by EU member states is of varying formats, content and details.
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace say that other countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Slovakia, and Sweden should also be named and shamed as “black sheep” of the stress tests process so far.
The earlier draft of the report said that “the Dutch operator has been asked to expand the information provided in its progress report,” but no member states were singled out in the final version.
If, as some believe, the wording of EU communications reflects the balance of power between, for example, pro and anti-nuclear camps in the EU, one linguistic shift might confirm some green assumptions.
The participating regulator involved in the interim report, told EurActiv that he objected to use of the term ‘stress test,’ to describe the process “because the idea of stress connected to nuclear is not good wording.”
His preferred term “comprehensive risk and safety assessment” was adopted by the European Commission in their final communication.