EU countries divided over nuclear stress tests

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France and Britain, the two EU countries with the largest nuclear industry, strongly opposed stringent stress tests on nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger's proposal to introduce them was sponsored by Austria, a country without nuclear energy, and backed by Germany.

In a short statement, the European Commission announced that a meeting of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) had ended without any results.

The Commission added that Oettinger had convened another ENSREG meeting for next week, on 19 and 20 May in Prague. Discussions will also continue at a lower level.

"Content is more important than timing. The public expects credible stress tests covering a wide range of risks and safety issues. This is what we are working on," Oettinger said in the statement.

National experts and regulators from several EU countries with nuclear reactors objected to including terrorist attacks as part of the security review of their nuclear installations.

This is despite an agreement reached at the highest political level following the Fukushima disaster to set the "highest standards" of nuclear safety in Europe (see 'Background').

The 143 nuclear power plants operating in Europe, plus the six under construction and the 15 planned, should be able to withstand any possible threat, including a malicious plane crash like the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, a cyber attack or acts by an operator who has lost his or her mind, EU leaders agreed in March.

France in particular pointed out that the threat of terrorism was not mentioned in the 25 March EU summit conclusions.

According to experts, if such draconian criteria are introduced, all existing nuclear power plants would need to close down.

Barroso not in sync with Oettinger?

In his public statements, Commission President José Manuel Barroso has revealed differences with Oettinger. He has refrained from mentioning 9/11-style terror threats, speaking instead of a "widest range of scenarios, natural and man-made".

But the German commissioner has thus far only repeated that he would not accept any watering down of the stringent tests proposed.

Under pressure from public opinion after Fukushima, Germany has reviewed its plans to extend the use of its older nuclear plants for another 10 to 15 years.

There is no deadline for adopting a decision on nuclear stress tests. What is certain is that planned nuclear power plants or installations under construction would be affected even in the absence of a decision.

In the event that the stress tests produce negative results for certain installations, decisions regarding their future will remain a national responsibility.

However, should upgrades not prove technically or economically feasible, reactors should be shut down and decommissioned, the Commission insists.

Just ahead of the ENSREG meeting, Greens/European Free Alliance group co-president Rebecca Harms MEP (Germany) backed Oettinger, who according to her had criticised what she called "weak" draft stress test criteria proposed by WENRA, the network of regulators of EU countries with nuclear power plants, issued last week.

"Tomorrow's meeting of EU nuclear safety regulators will provide the real test of Commissioner Oettinger's commitment and his ability to stick up to those nuclear member states, like France and the UK, that want weak criteria," she stated.

Green energy spokesperson Claude Turmes MEP (Luxembourg) added:

"The stress tests must not turn a blind eye to the serious deficiencies in the ageing EU fleet of nuclear reactors, which pose safety risks independently of external factors. This means also assessing the increased risks from the ageing components and outdated designs of decades-old reactors. Storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel must also be included in the stress tests, as Fukushima has shown that these can pose the greatest risk."

"Any stress tests that fall short of this complete assessment will be little more than an exercise in deception and Commissioner Oettinger should not associate himself or the EU Commission with such an exercise," Turmes added. 

Europe's nuclear industry, which until recently had been enjoying the prospect of a renaissance, has found itself on rapidly shifting political terrain, with Japan's crisis still developing in the wake of its 11 March earthquake and tsunami.

European leaders agreed on 25 March to set the "highest standards" of nuclear safety and submit all plants to "stress tests", in the wake of the unfolding crisis at Japan's stricken Fukushima plant.

The European Commission is working to extend the stress tests to other countries, in particular Switzerland, Russia, Ukraine and Armenia.

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