Last July, a legislative amendment to the 2009 nuclear safety directive was approved by the council of the European Union. This revision follows on from the Fukushima nuclear disaster which tragically revealed what had previously been denied: the impossible can happen. The combination of the failure of the electrical power supply and the cooling system, both of which are vital to nuclear safety, as well as the underestimation of the duration of the accident and poor management, have upset deep-rooted positions in Europe.
The proposed changes, however, are not far-reaching enough for the European Union to be able to deal with a disaster of the magnitude of Fukushima. The lack of any real substance in this directive shows just how much pressure lobbyists can exert on legislators. Nothing about the ageing of facilities, given that one of the main dangers posed by European nuclear installations is their average age of 29 years. Nothing about the human and organisational factors, the weak point criticised in the stress tests. And, from a more general viewpoint, nothing about the serious problem of a lack of safety culture: subcontracting at more than four levels and economic pressures to do with profitability, employees forced to turn a blind eye when it comes to certain shortcomings, job insecurity, and so on. Practically speaking, we are a long way from the stated intention of “promoting an effective culture of nuclear safety”.
Member States still have 3 years to implement the safety directive into their national legislation. By that time, in 2017, the first peer review is due to begin. At least a third of all European nuclear reactors (Europe has 151 reactors, excluding those in Russia) will then have passed their legally operational or design lifespan. Member states will therefore be agonising over what to worry about for the peer review: the ageing of the concrete containment building? How fragile the vessels have become? How unfeasible it is to bring a reactor from the 1970s up to current safety levels? Should we then wait another six years to discuss the other topics at European level? And who is going to be in a position to express their views regarding the choice of issue?
"For there to be nuclear safety in Europe, we will need to be able to put our trust in safety bodies that are strong and independent"
As with peer reviews or periodic self-assessments of national frameworks every 10 years, the meagre changes introduced in this revised directive will remain purely anecdotal as they are not accompanied by any implementation actions. These measures have been blocked within the European parliament itself and further on by the council. Matters that have been rejected in this way include: the need for nuclear safety regulators to be legally independent, the strengthening of these same regulators by giving them real power to impose sanctions including introducing a procedure for licence suspension, and a cooling-off period for job positions likely to give rise to conflicts of interest. How can we make people believe this directive is a move towards greater transparency and safety if such common sense measures are excluded?
Actually, the first condition for implementing this woolly piece of legislation on nuclear safety should be to strictly apply the basic principle that “decisions on safety [are taken] without external influence […] such as, for example, undue pressure relating to changes in political, economic and social affairs”. Here again, the facts speak for themselves. In recent weeks, the Belgian government has been planning, because of potential threats to the security of energy supply, to re-start two reactors that would normally be decommissioned, without regard to safety issues.
For there to be nuclear safety in Europe, we will need to rely on safety bodies that are strong and independent. However, for the moment, the EU is not contributing to that. Parliament has even less power, as its democratic role is constantly negated by the existence of the Euratom.