EU must learn nuclear ‘lessons from the past’

National concerns must not interfere with securing the highest possible levels of nuclear safety, says António Fernando Correia De Campos.

The nuclear accident that took place Fukushima in 2011 following a strong earthquake and tsunami brought the world’s attention on the need to reinforce the nuclear safety of nuclear installations, at every stage of their lifecycle, from planning, to siting, construction, operation and decommissioning.

Before Fukushima, another important accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, had also caused the loss of lives, exposure of inhabitants to radioactive contamination and cross-border environmental impacts from Belarus to northern Europe. The EU has 132 nuclear reactors in operation, about one third of all nuclear reactors in the world, and nuclear generation represents 30 per cent of all the electricity produced in Europe. Still, member states have disparate positions regarding nuclear power, including nuclear-free states, nations that are currently abandoning nuclear power due to safety concerns, and those that opted for continuing development of their nuclear capacity.

Based on the Euratom treaty, the European commission, together with the European nuclear safety regulators group (ENSREG) took on an important role to follow up on the consequences of the Fukushima accident. Even though nuclear power is a matter under the responsibility of each member state, the cross-border implications of a nuclear accident imposes upon the commission the duty to enhance cooperation and collaboration among member states with a view to promoting nuclear safety in Europe.

"The EU has 132 nuclear reactors in operation, about a third of all nuclear reactors in the world, and nuclear generation represents 30 per cent of all the electricity produced in Europe"

The council directive on Euratom established a community framework for the safety of nuclear installations. The detailed analysis of the general conditions related to Fukushima nuclear power operation, the sequence of events that led to the accident and the results of the stress tests subsequently carried out in Europe led to the presently proposed revision of the directive. Parliament, through its industry, research and energy (ITRE) committee closely followed the prominent cooperation that was established inside and outside Europe in this regard, and it shall now give its opinion on the proposal amending the 2009 nuclear safety directive.

The proposed changes aim at reinforcing the role and independence of the national regulatory authorities, at increasing transparency and information to the public, and at introducing new provisions in terms of safety all along the lifecycle of nuclear installations, including in emergency situations, and at promoting mutual monitoring and exchanges of best practice among members states.

The commission’s proposal was welcome by parliament. Lessons from the past must be translated into new laws and practices that envisage a nuclear safety culture in Europe. The Socialists and Democrats in parliament fought for the reinforcement of the safety aspects of the commission proposal. These were mainly in regard to the legal and functional independence of national regulatory authorities, the implementation of the peer review processes, new safety requisites for licensing the extension of operation of nuclear power stations beyond their projected lifetime, and an increased role for the commission to act as a coordinator among national entities to promote the harmonisation of nuclear safety across Europe.

However, nuclear energy is an area where national concerns may conflict with the greatest ambition for a higher level of nuclear safety and such fragmentation has also made its way into parliament. Even though some of our positions have not been approved, the final result of the vote in ITRE committee is still a positive and balanced one. If this position is preserved after the plenary vote, it represents a step forward in an area where making progress is far from easy.