EU Said to Bow to U.S. Resistance on Nuclear Safety Fixes

Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant
Regulators worldwide have tried to boost safety standards in response to the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdowns that caused 160,000 people to flee. Photographer: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

European countries are retreating from a Swiss-led proposal to strengthen international nuclear safety rules in the face of opposition from the U.S. and Russia.

Less than two weeks before the Convention on Nuclear Safety convenes in Vienna to decide whether to amend international regulations, European countries are scrambling to draft a compromise agreement that can win U.S. and Russian support without forcing costly reactor upgrades, according to three European diplomats familiar with the negotiations who asked not to be named because talks are private. The shift was reported by Reuters on Jan. 30.

“The European Union simply blinked,” Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said in an interview. By folding, the EU may weaken its position in future negotiations, he added.

The Swiss-led European initiative was intended to make regulators show how they mitigate against radioactive contamination from nuclear accidents like the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdowns that caused 160,000 people to flee. The plan ran into U.S. opposition from the start as American diplomats argued that amending the treaty would be a long and cumbersome process and could be internationally divisive.

Avoiding Vote

Rather than forcing a vote on an amendment, diplomats now are drafting a text that could be attached to the safety convention without going through the legal process of ratification. Diplomats are working on language that would encourage nuclear regulators to show continuous safety improvements without forcing them to take on new obligations, the envoys said.

EU countries “are fully committed to achieving the implementation of the highest standards of safety worldwide,” the European Commission said in an e-mailed response to a Bloomberg in inquiry. The commission’s objective “is to export internationally the principle of the new EU legislation on nuclear safety.”

Regulators worldwide have tried to boost safety standards in since the Fukushima accident. In the European Union, a July directive that hewed closely to the proposed treaty amendment made regulators show how they’re planning to mitigate against accidents.

France, which relies on nuclear power for more than 70 percent of its electricity, is installing reinforced bunkers, back-up power and emergency cooling systems. Sweden’s regulator said earlier this month that it too would “raise requirements for all reactors.”

Shrinking Profit

European utilities are paying four- to five-times more to upgrade existing plants with new safety gear, according to industry estimates. Under U.S. rules, power plants don’t have to invest in new safety gear that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deems too expensive.

“Opposition to the Swiss proposal mirrors the situation of the international nuclear industry,” said Paris-based Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. “Nuclear operators are confronted with severely shrinking profit margins everywhere.”

U.S. utilities operating nuclear reactors have come under cost pressure from cheap natural gas, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group. Without further changes to the market framework, power companies will most likely opt for natural-gas-fired generators instead of nuclear plants in future because their up-front costs are lower, NEI vice president Tony Pietrangelo said Dec. 4 in Senate testimony.

The U.S. has insisted its opposition to the European initiative has nothing to do with cost and that its nuclear-safety controls are adequate. In December, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a 298-page document requested by Bloomberg News under the Freedom of Information Act that shows the detailed questions regulators answer before their peers. Topics ranged from the kind of emergency-communications procedures it had in place in the event of an accident to how human errors could be mitigated through improving plant work conditions.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment.

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