Brussels nuclear debate goes into meltdown

Japan nuclear small.jpg

The European commissioner in charge of climate action, Connie Hedegaard, has signalled that EU decisions on commissioning new energy capacity are "very much likely to be influenced" by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

In an indication of how the European Commission's nuclear thinking is changing, Hedegaard told a European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) conference on 16 March that "we still have a profound choice". 

"We can say that if we do not want nuclear, we should have even more cheap fossil fuels to replace it, or we could say: 'Why not use this opportunity to address the necessity of moving towards a low-carbon emissions society?'".

"I think we should do that," she added.

Hedegaard was speaking a day after the EU's energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, described the Fukushima crisis in as an "apocalypse" and announced a series of 'stress tests' to measure safety procedures in European nuclear plants, following the nuclear catastrophe in Japan.  

"The most important aspect [of the tests] is to have a common understanding and a common Europeanised standard for safety and security," he told EURACTIV.

Decisions on the criteria and standards to be adopted by the stress test committee – and the make up of the experts who sit on it – would be made "thoroughly, without delay," Oettinger said.

But Michèle Rivasi, a Green MEP and founder of France's Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity, told EURACTIV that she was worried the tests would cover up nuclear risks and reinstate business as usual. 

"It's very important to have scientists who are not already paid by the nuclear power industry," she said. "If they are the same people from Euratom and national authorities they use today, why would they say anything different to what they say all the time?"

A scale of nuclear problematics was also needed to establish when a plant should be closed, she continued, and multi-risk scenarios including the threat of terrorist attack should be considered. 

Oettinger told a meeting of MEPs on 15 March that the tests would focus on issues including the possibility of seismic activity in quake zones such as the Rhine, and storm surges or flooding, as many nuclear power plants are located by the sea to utilise seawater for cooling purposes.

The age and construction type of nuclear plants will also be taken into account, as will the capacity of plants to guarantee operations, with electricity back-up systems.

The Commission hopes that the tests will also be conducted in neighbouring countries such as Switzerland, Turkey and Russia and by July 2011, a new nuclear directive will be completed and put before member states for ratification. 

On a parallel track, Oettinger told MEPs that a deepening of the EU's existing target of a 20% increase in the share of renewables in the energy mix "would appear to be urgent".

The Commission is planning to launch an energy roadmap for 2050 later in the autumn and, speaking to EURACTIV, Oettinger said that it would include greater targets for renewables. 

"We will have a debate and a proposal from the Commission side for a long-term target for 2030 and 2040 and 2050 and there will be a higher target for renewable energy," Oettinger said.

His spokesperson, Marlene Holzner, later clarified that it would not be legally binding. 

But "one thing is for sure," Hedegaard told delegates at the EWEA conference. "The tailwind in public opinion that the nuclear business has experienced over recent years is not there anymore."

"That will be gone, no matter what happens over the next hours and days in Japan," she said. 


More than 20,000 people may have been killed in Japan as the tsunami triggered by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake surged across the coastline, reducing whole towns to rubble. It was the biggest earthquake to have hit the country since records began 140 years ago.

At the tsunami-buffeted Japanese nuclear power plant of Fukushima, 240km north of Tokyo, the authorities have spent days desperately trying to cool overheated fuel rods to prevent radiation leaks and, ultimately, the possibility of a catastrophic meltdown.

Several experts said the Japanese authorities were underplaying the severity of the incident, particularly on a scale called INES used to rank nuclear incidents. The French nuclear agency has rated it a six on the scale, which ends at seven.

The authorities yesterday embarked on desperate new measures to avert a full-scale meltdown, dispatching helicopters to drop tons of water on the reactors and readying water cannons to cool a spent-fuel pool, which would lessen the risk of a catastrophic fire should the water hit the target.

  • July 2011: European Commission will come forward with new nuclear directive.
  • Autumn 2011: Commission will announce energy roadmap for 2050.


Life Terra

Funded by the LIFE Programme of the EU

The content of this publication represents the views of the author only and is his/her sole responsibility. The Agency does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.

Subscribe to our newsletters