Commission forced to scale down nuclear safety plans

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Regulators warn against common EU standards.

The European Commission will scale down its ambitions for EU-wide nuclear-safety rules when it publishes a draft directive next week (27 November).

Andris Piebalgs, the European commissioner for energy, wanted current voluntary safety rules to become compulsory. But this idea is likely to be dropped from the draft directive following a revolt by national nuclear-safety regulators. The European Nuclear Regulators' Group, which includes national regulators, expressed its concerns at an extraordinary meeting on 7 November. The group, created by the Commission in 2007 as the high-level group on safety and waste management to develop common approaches on nuclear safety, was taken by surprise by the draft directive.

Andrej Stritar, chair of the group, said that “the need for a new directive is not so obvious for nuclear regulators”. He rejected plans to make the rules, known as the European safety reference levels, mandatory, saying that doing so would be “too strong”.

A draft of the original proposal, seen by European Voice, says: “Despite a high degree of harmonisation, today the nuclear safety procedures and practices still vary from one member state to another...This diversity of measures does not allow the Community to satisfy itself that the health protection requirements...are applied in the most effective way.”

Stritar said that common standards were a problem for big countries, because it would be hard to find common rules that would satisfy them all. “Every big country has an established system. None of them is bad or better [than the others]. They are simply different.”

The regulators' resistance is a blow for the Commission, which had billed this proposal in its internal papers as a way “to unblock the debate in the Council [of Ministers] on a European approach to nuclear safety”.

Last year José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, called for “a full and frank debate about nuclear energy”. He said that it was not for the EU to decide whether member states used nuclear power, but that Europe needed to develop “the most advanced framework for nuclear energy, meeting the highest standards of safety, security and non-proliferation”.

Stritar warned against moves to create common standards too quickly: “Nobody wants a European regulator. We believe that national regulators, which are close to the utilities, which are close to the situation, should remain in charge...There should not be a regulator in charge in the clouds in Brussels.”

Sami Tulonen, institutional affairs director at the European Atomic Forum (Foratom), said that the nuclear industry welcomed the Commission's proposal, but added that concerns among the regulators had to be addressed. “The European Commission has to make absolutely clear what its role is,” he said. “The European Commission cannot regulate the regulators. It cannot control the regulators.”

In the EU, 15 out of 27 countries get energy from nuclear power, which accounts for around a third of total energy produced in the EU. But many nuclear power plants are near the end of their lives, which has triggered intense debate about building new ones.

In October 2007 the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that nuclear energy was “indispensable” to meeting Europe's energy needs. Herbert Reul, a German centre-right (EPP-ED) MEP, said that harmonised safety standards were important, adding that nuclear energy was “one of the solutions” to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide.

Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian Socialist MEP, said that the EU should be “passive and neutral on use of nuclear energy, but active in promoting safety standards”. He criticised Barroso and Piebalgs for failing to play a neutral role in the debate by underlining “the positives without seeing the risks of nuclear power”.

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