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EU Nuclear Stress Tests to Cover Disasters, Human Actions

The European Union agreed on parameters for stress tests on nuclear power plants that the bloc wants to conduct to reassess safety risks after a crisis in Japan, where an earthquake and a tsunami crippled atomic reactors.

The tests on the region’s 143 atomic plants will cover threats from natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tornados and extreme heat or snow, as well as airplane crashes and explosions close to nuclear stations, the European Commission said today in a statement. Preventive measures from terrorist attacks will be excluded, according to the EU regulatory arm.

“The quality of these stress tests is such as to fulfil the requirement of the EU citizens to live in a safe environment,” EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told a news conference in Brussels today.

EU leaders in March called for a “comprehensive and transparent risk and safety assessment” of European atomic stations after the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant.

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 approves of a suggestion from her Christian Social Union allies to switch off the last of Germany’s 17 reactors by 2022, the CSU said in a statement dated May 21.

No ‘Shortcut’

“We see some media and some member states speculating that the stress tests are the shortcut to leave nuclear power behind,” Oettinger said. “That’s not it.”

Nuclear power stations owned by companies including Electricite de France SA and Germany’s RWE AG produce a third of the electricity in the EU. While it is up to 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 aim is to learn from what happened in Japan and help prevent that a similar accident can happen in Europe,” the commission said in a statement today. “One of the most important lessons to be drawn is that the unthinkable can happen -- that two natural disasters can hit at the same time and knock out the electrical-power supply system completely.”

Terrorist Attacks

The commission and national atomic safety regulators agreed that while comparable damaging effects from terrorist attacks, such as plane crashes or explosives, will be covered in the tests, measures to prevent an attack will be dealt with separately with the assistance from national security officials.

“Despite the repeated assurances of commissioner Oettinger, it seems that the nuclear industry will get a stress-free ride under the proposed EU nuclear safety tests,” Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, said in a statement. “Pro-nuclear EU member states seem to have got their way and ensured key safety risks will not be part of the core stress tests.”

The tests, which are due to start on June 1 at the latest, will be carried out at three levels: first the plant operators will have to fill in a questionnaire, then it will be subject to checks by the national regulator and in the last step the report by the national regulator will be subject to a peer review by regulators from other member states and a representative of the commission, according to the statement.

Peer Reviews

The final results of the peer reviews are expected by the end of April 2012. Decisions on measures to be taken in the case of a failure of the stress tests will be made by member states.

“In case an upgrade is technically or economically not feasible, we believe reactors should be shut down and decommissioned,” the commission said.

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.

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