EU divided over nuclear plants' resistance to attack

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Europe's nuclear safety tests should be strengthened to include man-made crises, such as terrorist attacks or airplane crashes, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on Wednesday.

European leaders agreed in March to subject Europe's 143 reactors to "stress tests," to guard against disasters such as the one at Japan's stricken Fukushima plant.

But since then, a dispute has broken out between EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who wants the tests as wide-ranging as possible, and the French regulator, which opposes the inclusion of man-made scenarios.

Barroso threw his weight behind Oettinger on Wednesday, aiming to put an end to the dispute ahead of a meeting of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) on Thursday, which will aim to agree methodology for the tests.

"These tests should be comprehensive and include the widest range of scenarios, natural and man-made, focusing on their possible impact on the plants' functioning systems," Barroso said in a statement. "I hope this can be agreed tomorrow.

"I will also push for the strengthening of the international legal framework governing nuclear safety, in particular the Nuclear Safety Convention and the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident," Barroso added.

Those who oppose testing nuclear plants for their resilience to terrorist attack say the test might reveal weaknesses that terrorists would be quick to exploit, but Oettinger's spokeswoman said there was room for confidentiality.

"It is important that citizens know what we're doing and what the results of our stress tests are, but clearly...there's some information in this area which cannot be published, and the Commissioner said he was willing to compromise on that issue," Marlene Holzner told reporters.

Although the European Commission is trying to extend its reach into a region it has never regulated before, it still does not have powers to close unsafe reactors, and any such move would likely result from a government decision or public pressure.

"The stress test is in any case voluntary, because the European Commission, although it has a mandate to develop the stress tests, it does not have a mandate to force a member state to do the stress tests or to shut down a nuclear power plant," said Holzner.

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