Oettinger pushes for stress tests of Europe’s nuclear plants

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Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger called at a hastily-convened meeting of ministers yesterday (15 March) for the introduction of safety "stress tests" at nuclear power plants in Europe. He commended the  safety standards currently in place in EU countries, but at the same time told German media that Europe must consider a "foreseeable future" without nuclear energy.

Against a background of Japanese resilience in the face of what appears to be the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years ago (see 'Background'), Europe appears to be reaching for the panic button for no particular reason.

Oettinger chaired a hectic meeting of ministers, diplomats, regulators and representatives of energy companies who operate nuclear power plants (NPPs) in Brussels yesterday, which was followed by a debate with MEPs at the European Parliament.

Despite the paucity of information on the disaster at Fukushima nuclear power plant, Oettinger was quick to rate the Japanese catastrophe on an international scale of six out of seven. The Chernobyl disaster is the only one ever to have scored seven on the global ranking, and was followed by the Three Mile Island incident in the USA in 1979, which was rated four.

"I wouldn't like to imagine the worst but it's possible," he said, hinting at the possibility of a further deterioration in the situation in Japan.

In their quest for security, ministers and experts decided in the end to introduce "stress tests" for Europe's 195 nuclear power plants (NPPs). In the EU there are 134 NPPs spread across fourteen countries.

An anti-nuclear proposal

Hours after the meeting ended, Commission spokespeople had no clue what these "stress tests" should consist of. Journalists were instead advised to ask the Austrian authorities the same question.

Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich called for such stress tests on Sunday (13 March) to make sure that nuclear power stations were quake-proof following Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami. Austria, a mountainous country rich in geothermal energy, has no NPPs and no plans to develop nuclear energy.

Oettinger emerged from the meeting announcing that the decision to introduce stress tests had been adopted without any opposition. The details of the stress tests would be determined at another meeting in April, he said.

By July this year the stress tests will have be adopted and they will be implemented in the second half of the year, he insisted, explaining that carrying out the tests will be voluntary, as under current EU legislation nuclear safety is an area of shared competence between the EU and its member countries.

The focus of the stress tests will differ according to local conditions, taking into account the seismic situation or the risks of flooding. The criteria used will be the strictest criteria in individual member countries, he explained.

Oettinger also said that non-EU countries such as Switzerland or Russia will be expected to conduct such testing too, according to EU standards. He also hinted that these countries could participate in drawing up the criteria of the tests.

"We have to put this [stress tests] altogether and Russia is a partner there. It's important to export these stress tests and with our relationship with Russia, we should see if this is possible," Oettinger told MEPs.

Nuclear safety will naturally become one of the topics of the 24-25 March EU summit, Oettinger predicted.

Election context

German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Monday the closure of seven of the country's ageing nuclear power plants, in a move seen as a desperate attempt to avoid a whitewash in regional elections.

The move astonished Germans as it heralded the suspension of an unpopular coalition decision taken last autumn, under which the life of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants was extended for years.

Oettinger, a close ally of Merkel's, told the German media that Europe needed to consider whether it could live without nuclear energy one day.

"We must also raise the question of if we in Europe, in the foreseeable future, can secure our energy needs without nuclear energy," he told broadcaster ARD.

In a separate interview for EURACTIV, Oettinger took a completely different line. Asked if he thought that European member states had paid sufficient attention to questions of nuclear safety in the recent past, he said "they are these days very sensitive and I think safety and security have a very real high level in all European member states, yes".

Bulgarian NPP incriminated

In an interview with German media, Oettinger said that Bulgaria's plans to build a nuclear power plant at Belene, on the Danube river, would have to be reassessed. He added that there were problems regarding the project's financing.

Oettinger's spokesperson Marlene Holzner told EURACTIV that Belene is in limbo "not because of the Commission," but due to the fact that the project by Russia's Rosatom had not found a European investor.

"Once there is an investor and we get the plans, we'll look at them and issue our opinion on them," Holzner said.

Bulgarian Energy Minister Traicho Traikov, who attended the meeting chaired by Oettinger, was quick to back-track, saying that a reactor commissioned for Belene could be used instead at the Kozloduy NPP.

Belene is situated in a more seismic area than Kozloduy, he explained.

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British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday that nuclear power should remain part of the UK's energy mix, although there were lessons to be learned from the Japanese nuclear crisis, Reuters reported.

"I do think that nuclear power should be part of the mix in future as it is part of the mix right now," Cameron told parliament.

"Obviously I'm sure that everyone watching the dreadful events in Japan will want to make sure we learn any lessons."

Nuclear industry body Foratom warned against "knee-jerk" reactions, and other supporters of nuclear power pointed out that Europe is much less geologically active than Japan, Reuters reported.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said that his country would not abandon nuclear energy in the coming decades.

"To tell the French that we would abandon the nuclear would amount to lying to them. We need to increase the share of renewables and this is what we do. But those renewables would amount to a maximum of 20% of our energy needs in the coming years. Therefore, we cannot abandon nuclear energy in the coming decades," he said.

Speaking at a conference held in London on 15 March and organised by New Direction – The Foundation for European Reform in partnership with the Institute for Democracy and Stability in South-East Europe, various speakers acknowledged that the nuclear disaster in Fukushima would pose a great future challenge in convincing the public that the nuclear solution is a safe option for reducing Europe's dependence on energy from unreliable countries.

"We have put a lot of confidence in the development of the nuclear sector. With the current situation in Japan, we now face the difficult task of once again persuading the public of the safety of the nuclear option. This comes at a critical time when we need to become less dependent on unreliable and unstable parts of the world," said New Direction President Geoffrey van Orden MEP (European Conservatives and Reformists; UK).

"After the events in Japan we have to have a new approach towards nuclear power plants. All European countries share the same risk," said Martin Dimitrov, a Bulgarian MP for the opposition Blue Coalition, adding: "We cannot underestimate the seismic threat for all upcoming projects in Europe too."

For example, according to Bulgarian nuclear physics expert Gueorgui Kastchiev, a new nuclear power plant is being planned in Belene (Bulgaria) on a site that is close to the scene of a devastating earthquake in 1977.

Kastchiev said that it would be difficult to replace nuclear power in many European countries as 25% of Europe's electricity supplies were of nuclear origin. "Safety is therefore of the highest importance. We have to reconsider what nuclear power we want, where we want to construct nuclear power plants, what we do with the old units and nuclear waste."

Keith Smith from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (CSIS) appealed for more transparency in the way Europe deals with its Russian energy partners.

"Transparency and rule of law are getting worse in Russia, and we would be foolish to think this is not spilling over to Europe. A number of politicians and institutions are being handsomely funded by Russian energy company Gazprom," said Smith, adding: "Corruption and lack of transparency is one of the largest threats to energy security in Europe."

"The stress tests on Europe's nuclear plants announced by the European Commission are standing on feet of clay. There is no EU-wide legal basis for consequences after the tests, ranging from technical adaptations to shutdowns of power plants", said MEP Jo Leinen (S&D), Chairman of the Environment Committee in the European Parliament.

The European Union is subsidizing atomic energy with over 500 million Euros a year but does not have the competence to set minimal standards for the security of nuclear installations. This serious lack of regulation has to be addressed in order to create a EU-wide level of protection.

"The Euratom Treaty of 1957 needs to be changed urgently", demanded Jo Leinen.

"Europe is extremely densely populated; many nuclear power plants are located near national borders. We need an EU competence for setting minimal security standards and security assessments followed by appropriate sanctions", Leinen concluded.

Commenting on the stress tests, Greens/EFA co-president MEP Rebecca Harms (Germany) said:

"While EU energy commissioner Oettinger has moved to respond to concerns about nuclear safety in Europe, we are concerned that the vague concept of voluntary stress tests, outlined yesterday, does not address the urgency of the situation, following the tragic disaster in Japan. All nuclear reactors should clearly be subjected to rigorous, independent stress tests that assess safety. It is however unclear how cumulative emergencies and multiple failures can be assessed in such a procedure or how human failure can be factored in.

"These stress tests must not be used as an excuse to delay decisions on shutting down the most dangerous reactors, where we already know the risk is not acceptable. We simply cannot afford to wait until the end of the year to define and implement stress tests for the most dangerous reactors. We already have enough information to act and urgent priority must be given to shutting down reactors constructed before 1980, in areas of seismic activity, without secondary containment or 'boiling water' reactors, for which the danger is greatest (1)."

Green energy spokesperson MEP Claude Turmes (Luxembourg) added:

"There is also a need to halt all new reactors that are being planned or are under construction. The Commission should immediately revise its decision to approve the construction of the nuclear reactor in Belene, Bulgaria as it would be located in an area of seismic activity and at risk of earthquakes.

"Clearly, this must be just a first step as part of a coordinated European phase-out of nuclear. Starting now and planning for the consequences will ensure a total phase out can be completed as early as possible. We need swift and decisive action and the European Commission must work with EU member states to coordinate this. The forthcoming EU energy roadmap for 2050, to be presented by the Commission, should factor in this nuclear phase out."

 

More than 10,000 people may have been killed in Japan as the tsunami triggered by Friday's 9.0-magnitude quake surged across the coastline, reducing whole towns to rubble. It was the biggest earthquake to have hit the country since it started keeping records 140 years ago.

At the tsunami-stricken Japanese nuclear power plant of Fukushima, 240 km north of Tokyo, authorities have spent days desperately trying to prevent water which is designed to cool the radioactive cores of the reactors from evaporating, which would lead to overheating and possibly a dangerous meltdown.

Concern now centres on damage to a part of the No. 4 reactor building where spent rods were being stored in pools of water outside the containment area, and also to part of the No.2 reactor that helps to cool and trap the majority of cesium, iodine and strontium in its water.

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 Japanese have so far rated the accident a four on a one-to-seven scale, but that rating was issued on Saturday and since then the situation has worsened dramatically.

The last-ditch efforts appear to have stemmed what could well be remembered as one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

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