Time is ripe for EU-wide nuclear safety rules, Brussels says

Monday, May 26, 2008

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Brussels has called on EU member states to end the six-year deadlock over one of Europe's touchiest topics and agree common nuclear safety rules as well as ways in which to store nuclear waste.

"It is an absolute necessity," EU energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs told EUobserver on Thursday (22 May), while blaming EU governments for a lack of political will to give Brussels a stronger say on the issue.

Referring to the commission's previous attempts to legislate in the area, Mr Piebalgs said that some member states thought "the commission would gain too much power".

The EU's executive body tabled a nuclear package covering safety aspects twice - first, in 2002 and, subsequently, an updated version in 2004. But the package was killed off as soon as it reached the council, representing EU governments.

But according to Mr Piebalgs, progress on nuclear safety rules are inevitable also in order to speed up certification procedures for constructing new nuclear plants in Europe.

He cited Slovakia's application to build two reactors in Mochovce, describing the long-running case as "one of the casualties of not having common safety standards". Bratislava, at the forefront of a renewed push for nuclear energy, has been waiting for the commission's opinion since July 2007.

"Why does it take a year? Because we have to give an opinion based on the International Atomic Energy Agency requirements or on the best practices. If it is clear what is required, it will be easier to deliver an opinion," commissioner Piebalgs said.

The two sides are arguing over whether Mochovce should have full containment - additional walls of concrete and steel protecting the reactor. This is not something that is required under international standards, but is considered by some as the best way of protection.

"I would very much welcome if the member states move out of this stalemate ... and look favourably at this [common nuclear safety] issue," he concluded.

The current commission, under the leadership of Jose Manuel Barroso, has not shied away from supporting the nuclear path, a controversial option in many parts of Europe. It says that nuclear energy has a role to play in meeting the EU's growing concerns about security of supply and CO2 emission reductions.

Currently, 15 member states use nuclear energy for power generation. With some 150 nuclear reactors in operation, the 27-nation EU is the world leader when it comes to a number of commercial nuclear power stations. They cover one third of the union's electricity needs.

But many criticize what is being called a nuclear renaissance and refuse to grant nuclear energy the saviour role in the EU's fight against climate change.

"The same amount of money spent on energy efficiency and renewables could much more effectively result in lower greenhouse gas emissions," Andras Perger from the Hungary-based Energia Klub said on Friday (23 May).

At the same time, Mr Perger accused the nuclear lobby of trying to make a comeback through the EU's most recent member states. "The aim to finish outdated and mothballed Soviet-design reactors shows that the nuclear industry tries to survive at whatever cost," he said.

Slovakia, Lithuania and Bulgaria were all forced by the European Commission to shut down Soviet-era nuclear reactors as part of their accession to the EU. Currently, Lithuania as well as Romania, are eyeing construction of new power plants.

In addition, Italy has just announced it is to resume building nuclear reactors in the next five years, two decades after a referendum saw the Italian public vote against the energy source.

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