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.
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.