Nuclear stress tests: Oettinger hopes to go further
By Nathalie Vandystadt and Christian Fink | Thursday 04 October 2012
“I hope that our report will not be archived but that it will serve as a basis for future legislative acts.” Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger hopes to keep going after the publication, on 4 October, of the results of the stress tests that document “hundreds of technical measures” needed to boost the safety of the 134 operational nuclear reactors in the EU, in the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant, in March 2010.
“I hope to be given a mandate to report on progress in two years’ time,” the commissioner told reporters. He will submit this request to the 27 heads of state and government at the European Council, on 18-19 October in Brussels. To advance as he hopes, Oettinger will still need the green light from member states, because the EU cannot impose anything in the area of nuclear safety. He also hopes to strengthen the European nuclear safety standards laid down in the 2009 directive, so that all plants apply them.
The report points out that certain operators have not yet applied all the post-Chernobyl recommendations and that, in many cases, standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are not met.
The commissioner has already had the opportunity to defend the “seriousness” and “transparency” of this report, which he says reveals a “satisfactory situation” and does not fall prey to either alarmism or “complacency”. It makes many recommendations, however. According to Commission sources, four entail a European dimension: tackling the lack of cohesion in the assessment of natural dangers by developing European standards; conducting European stress tests at least every ten years; implementing emergency measures to protect nuclear plants’ containment systems, the final barrier for protecting the public from releases of radioactivity; and implementing accident prevention measures.
While certain countries, like Bulgaria and the United Kingdom, but also France (40% of Europe’s nuclear facilities), show more weaknesses than Swedish plants, for example, any ranking would be misleading, say European experts. Everything would depend on the particular circumstances of each plant, including the risk of a country being hit by an earthquake, for example.
These stress tests, launched 18 months ago and unprecedented at EU level, were conducted in three stages. First, the operators performed a self-assessment and made proposals for safety improvements. Their reports were then reviewed by the national regulators, who added their own recommendations. In the final stage, the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) evaluated the reports. European, international and Commission experts visited 54 reactors, including four plants in France, at which a lack of preparedness for emergency procedures and weaknesses in the protection of back-up systems in the event of accidents were identified.
The upgrading of European plants would cost €10-25 billion, or €30-200 million per reactor. These amounts are nevertheless extrapolated from estimates made by EDF and the French nuclear safety authority in their own assessments of the robustness of French nuclear plants. Oettinger noted that in no case would EU funds be used for such operations.
The tests were therefore limited to assessing the safety of reactors in cases of flooding and earthquakes (as in Fukushima) that lead to the loss of normal safety functions at the plant, and their capacity to cope with serious accidents. They did not address human-caused incidents, such as terrorist attacks or human error, a matter of member state competence. The tests were severely criticised by ecologists and NGOs for this reason. Aircraft crashes and extreme weather conditions were nevertheless assessed indirectly, assures the Commission.