Chastened Palacio retables EU nuclear rules

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

The European Commission has re-proposed a package of EU nuclear safety and waste rules, but only after deleting most of its teeth in the face of implacable hostility from some capitals.

Launching the legislation in Brussels on Wednesday, EU energy commissioner Loyola de Palacio was frank that she preferred the Commission's previous proposals, which member states binned this summer. But "the best is the enemy of the good", she added.

The first of two directives seeks to introduce a first ever EU legal framework on safety at nuclear installations of all kinds, plus on power station decommissioning. The second would require governments to submit plans for developing long-term disposal of nuclear waste.

Ms de Palacio insisted that the legislation was needed, and claimed that the Commission was obliged by a European court of justice judgement to propose it. Some new EU member states had been singled out for controls, she said, yet the club could not have second class members - common rules had to apply to all.

The commissioner was also frank about her underlying motive for the legislation. The EU "cannot avoid" nuclear power given the challenge of climate change, so public fears must be dispelled.

"We hope [the legislation] will provide greater transparency and greater information for citizens, leading to greater confidence and trust, and a more rational debate on nuclear energy", she said.

A key change to the revised nuclear safety directive is a new article stressing that responsibility for safety lies wholly with operators and national authorities. The change responds to the determination by the UK, in particular, to stop EU "interference" in the existing international nuclear safety framework.

In a second key change, member states would be required simply to provide sufficient funds for decommissioning nuclear power stations. The Commission's previous proposal for securely ring-fenced decommissioning funds had drawn strenuous opposition from Germany in particular.

In a new article, the Commission also proposes setting up a committee of national regulatory authorities aimed at encouraging exchange of best practice. Member states would still have to report to the Commission on safety of nuclear installations, but not necessarily annually, as in the previous proposal.

The big change to the nuclear waste management directive, meanwhile, is the complete disappearance of any mandatory timetable for either planning or construction of long-term storage facilities. Member states would instead simply be required to establish a timetable.

The Commission has also retreated from a requirement that high-level and long-lived radioactive waste be disposed of in geological repositories. Some governments objected to this, preferring to consider surface storage instead.

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