EU Debates Atomic Safety Checks as Spanish Quake Kills Eight

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Planned stress tests on European nuclear plants should focus on threats from natural disasters and exclude potential man-made catastrophes such as a terrorist attack, European atomic industry group Foratom said.

European nuclear officials are to decide today on parameters for the safety checks on atomic power plants in response to the Japanese nuclear crisis caused by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The meeting of the European Commission, the EU regulator, and 27 national nuclear safety authorities comes a day after Spain’s biggest earthquake in 57 years killed eight people.

European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said last week that the stress tests on the region’s atomic plants should include threats from terrorists.

“We should focus on criteria ensuring that EU nuclear plants can withstand major natural disasters,” Christian Taillebois, director for external relations at Foratom, said yesterday in an interview in Brussels. “Foratom supports the idea of stress tests. Still, they should be about safety, not about national security.”

EU leaders in March called for a “comprehensive and transparent risk and safety assessment” of the region’s 143 atomic plants following the accident in Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. In Spain, the Cofrentes atomic power plant, the closest to the epicenter of yesterday’s 5.2-magnitude temblor, was operating normally at 6:30 a.m. local time, the atomic safety agency reported.
Stress-Test Parameters

The commission should stick to the mandate given by EU leaders when deciding about the stress-test parameters, said Taillebois, whose organization represents 800 companies in the region’s atomic energy industry.

Nuclear power stations owned by companies including Electricite de France SA and Germany’s RWE AG (RWE) produce a third of the electricity in the EU. The safety checks, which could start in the second half of this year, should test the resistance of Europe’s nuclear plants to earthquakes, floods and other extreme natural events, as proposed by the Western European Nuclear Regulators’ Association last month, Taillebois said.

Atomic stations should also prove that they have back-up systems in the case of a power supply cut-off and have means to protect from and deal with “severe accident management issues,” such as loss of cooling in the core or in the spent fuel storage pool, he said.

“Including terrorist attacks or cyber-attacks as stress- test criteria would mean the checks will take more time and authorities won’t be able to make the results public,” Taillebois said. “Our feeling is that citizens in Europe are waiting for the results and we should announce them without delays. People don’t want to make things political and it’s important to prove that nuclear plants in Europe are safe.”

The risk of a nuclear meltdown in Japan triggered public protests in Europe against atomic power and prompted Germany to order a temporary halt to the country’s seven oldest reactors. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Ethics Commission said a complete nuclear phase-out is possible by 2021 if not before, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported yesterday, citing a draft of the commission’s final report.

It is up to national governments in the EU to decide whether to use nuclear power, which is produced in 14 member countries. Safety is a shared responsibility between national and EU authorities. The European Commission, the EU’s Brussels-based executive, and the 27-nation bloc’s national nuclear safety authorities are developing the parameters for the safety checks, which may be announced today.

Nuclear-Waste Disposal
EU governments in 2009 set their first common standards for the construction and operation of atomic reactors, saying the industry’s growth requires steps to ease public anxiety about the risks. A draft law proposed last year would broaden EU safety oversight by setting bloc-wide standards for nuclear-waste disposal.

France, which gets about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, has emphasized that national authorities are responsible for deciding on the lifespan of atomic plants. French reactors will remain a “fundamental” source of energy for the country, Industry Minister Eric Besson said on March 21. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that France would close any of its reactors that fail the tests.

“Nuclear energy still has a key role to play in Europe and there’s always room for improvement of safety standards,” Taillebois said. “It’s very important to ensure there’s no risk to human health or to the environment from atomic power. Even if Germany decides about the phase-out it’s not a major trend in Europe to turn away from nuclear.”

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