EC shifts on safety

Monday, December 1, 2008

Back in 2003, it had seemed like such a good idea, at least to the European Commission (EC). Nuclear energy safety lapses can have transnational consequences and so surely the European Union (EU) should have an active role in making sure its member states’ nuclear power plants are safe? After all, there are EU agencies controlling the safety of food, chemicals, civil aviation, shipping and a host of other issues – so why not nuclear power? A directive was duly proposed detailing powers and responsibility for the EU in nuclear safety. Well, as it turned out, national governments just did not like this idea. Nuclear power proved just too strategic an industry for member states to want to hand over authority to Brussels, and the proposal ran into the sand, which is where it has stayed.

Until now, that is: as its last year in office approaches, the current EC has proposed a new directive, which also aims at guaranteeing EU nuclear safety, but with a crucial difference. The nuclear policemen charged with making sure Europe’s nuclear plants are safe and sound will be unambiguously under national government control. So, a surrender by the commission? Not quite. The new proposal does at least aim to impose performance standards on national nuclear safety regulators, allowing the EU to hold a member state to account should its nuclear safety controls fail to meet those standards. EU energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs argued: “This directive will benefit EU citizens by improving their safety and giving them legal certainty. Member states will have a common reference framework for their respective national nuclear safety systems and retain the right to apply more stringent rules if required.”

A key issue for Brussels, especially as it faces the prospect of Eastern European member states building new reactors – or extending the life of old ones – is the independence of safety regulators from major power interests in all EU countries. The new text “reinforces the role and the independence of the national regulatory bodies,” stressed Brussels in an explanatory memorandum of the legislation. “The effective independence of the regulatory body from all organisations tasked to promote, operate nuclear installations or justify societal benefits, as well as its freedom from undue influence must be ensured,” noted the commission in a summary of the new proposed standards.

Furthermore, it states: “The regulatory body shall grant licences and monitor their application on siting, design, construction, commissioning, operation or decommissioning of nuclear installations.” And it adds that “nuclear safety assessments, investigations, control and enforcement actions of the regulatory body must be carried out throughout the whole lifetime of installations, including during decommissioning.” It continues: “In case of serious or repeated safety rules breaches, the regulatory body shall have the power to withdraw the operating licence and order the suspension of operations of any plant if it deems that safety is not fully guaranteed.”

There is also some scope for outside control of these regulators written into the new legislation. As regards the safety of new nuclear power reactors, the directive says that member states should be “encouraged to develop additional safety requirements, in line with the continuous improvement of safety on the basis of the safety levels developed by Western European Nuclear Regulators’ Association (Wenra) and in close collaboration with the European High Level Group on Nuclear Safety and Waste Management.” Both these bodies are made up of national experts, but they are at least cross-border institutions, with the high level group being established by the commission for advice on nuclear safety. And the proposed law says that at least every 10 years “the regulatory body shall submit itself and the national regulatory system to an international peer review aimed at continuously improving the regulatory infrastructure.” Which means, they must at least have an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) check up.

It is possible that this may not be the last proposed legislation that the commission tables on nuclear standards in the near future. Brussels also in November released a policy paper (a Communication) updating its 2007 Nuclear Illustrative Programme, where it discusses the need for high design standards in any new reactors that will be installed by 2020 and beyond, signalling a possible need for detailed legislation on design. Stressing that the role of the EU is to “ensure that this source of energy is developed while meeting the highest level of safety,” the paper says that the EU should “promote more coherent rules on licensing and safety for the construction of new nuclear power plants.” It stressed that an “appropriate regulatory framework for new nuclear investments would facilitate future investments in this sector and thereby contribute to security of supply.”

Looking beyond the EU, the EC is also considering how to develop its cooperation with neighbouring states in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia as regards improving nuclear power standards, safety and security. In another policy paper (also a Communication), it says how it wants to continue its work launched under the Tacis nuclear safety programme in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia. This is to be continued under a new Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC), which has €524 million to spend from 2007-2013 on helping make improvements to nuclear safety outside the EU. However, with Russia and Ukraine’s need for assistance declining, the policy paper said the commission would be reassessing the scheme “to prioritise its activities [in] nuclear safety and security” for countries outside the former USSR.

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