EU commitment to nuclear safety ‘proven’ by Fukushima reaction

The establishment of EU level requirements on nuclear safety can build upon the bloc’s already high safety standards, writes Romana Jordan.

By Romana Jordan MEP

01 Apr 2014

High safety standards in the field of nuclear energy are a must. Nuclear energy plays an important role in a sustainable energy mix, but it can only do so if high safety standards are respected. Good operating and safety parameters and practices of European nuclear power plants indicate a high level of safety culture in European society. This in turn, has also been proven by the EU’s reaction to the Fukushima accident in the form of stress tests and consequent adjustments in current nuclear safety legislation that are in the legislative procedure at the present time.

The proposal amending the nuclear safety directive was prepared by the European commission as a reaction to the Fukushima accident and the stress tests which followed in the EU member states and some other countries. The first nuclear safety directive from 2009 marked the birth of an EU policy in the field of safety of nuclear installations and put at its centre the principle that safety should always be the first priority. It therefore included provisions on maintenance and the promotion of continuous improvement of nuclear safety.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, the European council and the European parliament asked the commission, together with the European nuclear safety regulators’ group (ENSREG) to carry out stress tests of nuclear installations in the union. This exercise was based on a common methodology and demonstrated that all nuclear installations in the union attain appropriate levels of nuclear safety for them to remain in operation. But as ever-improving safety culture plays an important role in the EU, the stress tests resulted also in a number of recommendations in the fields of external hazards, loss of safety functions, severe accidents and aircraft accidents. Also, a revision of the nuclear safety directive in a number of areas was proposed.

"Nuclear safety experts have regular meetings where they exchange their experiences and share knowledge in order to learn from each other’s experiences and failures. Similar principles should also apply in politics"

Some might ask why these tests were needed in the EU, where earthquakes are not as strong as in Japan and the risk of tsunami seems practically impossible. To this, the answer lies in the very core of the concept of nuclear safety – each unintended and unforeseen event that leads to an accident, has to be analysed in order to find underlying reasons and establish possible solutions. Nuclear safety experts have regular meetings where they exchange their experiences and share knowledge in order to learn from each other’s experiences and failures. Similar principles should also apply in politics. Nuclear safety culture is not only having well educated and trained workers in the nuclear power plants, but also independent and competent employees of the national regulatory authorities. And the same standards must apply to providers and subcontractors in projects related to nuclear energy. Last, but certainly not least, the institutional arrangements in this area should consist of clearly defined responsibilities, competences and tasks of various actors in a way which doesn’t allow for creating a situation where it is not clear who does what and who is responsible. All the described topics are addressed in the revision of the nuclear safety directive in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident.

The commission presented in June 2013 a proposal to amend, strengthen and supplement the nuclear safety directive. A report on the directive was adopted in parliament’s industry, research and energy committee on 18 March 2014. The document is now waiting to be voted in plenary at the beginning of April in Brussels.

It is often said that nuclear accidents do not respect national borders. Therefore, nuclear safety should also be treated as such and new requirements should be established at the EU level, even if certain competences remain in the hands of member states. If a more coherent set of standards for nuclear safety was established in the framework of the union, I believe that people might gain more trust in nuclear energy. It is reassuring in this view, that political divisions were overcome in parliament during negotiations on the nuclear safety directive. The main requirements of the directive were adopted in the form of compromise amendments, supported by a majority of political groups and I am happy that this was possible.

The European parliament is the voice of European citizens. In practice, this becomes even more obvious during election times, towards which we are currently heading. I therefore hope that this lively political environment will also prompt the council to adopt a nuclear safety directive following the suggestions of parliament. When Moses led his people to the promised land, it was the journey that was important – the same can be said for safety culture.