EU nuclear stress tests could prove less strenuous than expected

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Europe is preparing new stress tests designed to put nuclear power stations through their paces. It's a response primarily to the problems at Japan's Fukushima plant. But will the tests be as rigorous as promised?

The European Commission is set to present a draft for its new nuclear stress tests next week. While the Fukushima power plant, ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami, teetered on the brink of meltdown in March, European leaders agreed to set the "highest standards" of nuclear safety, with a mandatory round of new stress tests key to achieving this goal.

"We are well under way, and I'm sure there will be a strong draft for the stress tests," European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said on Tuesday at an informal energy minister's meeting in Godollo, Hungary. "In the light of Japan, we need to guard against earthquakes, tsunamis, and so on."

This focus on natural disasters expressed by Oettinger could be the defining feature of the tests, according to reports in Germany on Wednesday. The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, citing sources close to the energy commissioner, reports that the stress tests are unlikely to include investigations into more man-made potential problems, most notably if power plants could withstand a plane crash. Oettinger has already said that the inclusion of plane-crash tests is currently "an open question."

The initial draft for the stress tests - compiled by the Western European Nuclear Regulators' Association (WENRA), an association of the top nuclear regulatory authorities from EU countries that use nuclear power and Switzerland - does not mention the possibility of plane crashes.

The Süddeutsche reports that it's possible such tests would be conducted on a voluntary basis, country by country.

Diplomats currently say, however, that the content of WENRA's draft has not yet been confirmed, or even officially debated by energy ministers and other politicians.

Divided we stall

Non-nuclear Austria, green groups and some European Parliament members are insisting that the tests must include provisions against the possibility of terror attacks using planes to target nuclear power plants.

"For such elementary safety questions, for such dangers - including terror attacks or plane crashes - the highest possible standards must apply to all EU members," Germany's consumer affairs minister, Ilse Aigner, said in a follow-up interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

"We do not live on an island. When it comes to important safety matters affecting all European countries, then unified high standards must apply to all reactors, in Germany and in neighboring countries."

The newspaper reports that France and Britain have been pushing for the tests to be as watered-down as possible. As Europe's most prolific nuclear power producers, these countries are said to be concerned that the plane-related stress tests could force the closure of plants that would have otherwise been given a clean bill of health.

All of Europe's 146 nuclear reactors are set to be subjected to these new stress-tests once they are finalized. European leaders agreed on the need for the tests at a summit in March – with particular emphasis placed on power-supply, cooling and other back-up functions at power plants. A power failure triggered by the earthquake was among the biggest problems faced by the Fukushima plant as it sought to keep its reactors cool.

A European issue, of German importance

Nuclear power has always been a contentious issue in Germany, but for the past year or so, it has become a millstone around the neck of Chancellor Merkel's center-right coalition.

Merkel's plan to extend the lives of the country's 17 nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years - undoing popular legislation to phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2020 - was already on the ropes long before Japan's major earthquake destabilized the situation further.

A major public demonstration against a transportation of nuclear waste from France to a storage site in Germany dominated the headlines for a week last November. The opposition Social Democrats and Greens had been making strong gains in opinion polls and local ballots tanks at least in part to their anti-nuclear platform. Nuclear power was a recurring theme at the politically charged annual Carnival parades around Germany this March.

When Japan began to fight the second biggest nuclear accident after Chernobyl, just days before two major regional elections in Germany, it was clear that Chancellor Merkel had to act.

Merkel announced a three-month moratorium on the law extending German plants' running time, even agreeing to shut some down temporarily as a result. The rationale given was to use this time to conduct more thorough stress tests on all German plants - and before long, Merkel convinced her European partners to follow a similar course.

As a result, the continent-wide stress tests are something of a boon for Merkel, a positive nuclear talking point in a country dominated by anti-nuclear sentiment. However, if the notion that the tests are too lenient gains traction in Germany, the tests might soon become another source of nuclear stress for the government in Berlin.

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