Nuclear Power Puts European Integration to the Test -- Again

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By David Henry

If European Union authorities in Brussels didn't have enough to do trying to prop up a monetary system built on sand, now they are faced with another challenge to the integration process that may again reveal their weakness on issues that matter: nuclear power.

Last week, results of stress tests on the safety of 145 nuclear reactors in the EU found that as much as 25 billion euros ($32.4 billion) needs to be spent to retrofit and upgrade existing power plants to conform to international standards. But the security shortcomings identified by the report -- which assessed scenarios such as earthquakes, flooding, terrorism and plane crashes around nuclear sites -- were mostly already known to national regulators.  More than anything, the report and its recommendations highlight the EU's lack of authority over member states.

Fourteen of the EU's 27 countries have nuclear reactors and all member states have their own regulators, which are responsible for implementing their own plans for nuclear safety. As Thomas Exner wrote in Germany's Die Welt newspaper, "Brussels, which regulates the banalities of everyday life to a ridiculous degree, has no jurisdiction over the existential pan-European questions that are nuclear safety and the storage of nuclear waste."

There is little agreement among members on nuclear issues. While the Finns and French are building new reactors, the Spanish have banned their construction, the Belgians are thinking about doing the same, the Italians have cancelled plans to revive nuclear power (which they haven't had since 1990), and the British may have to scale back their plans after two companies pulled out of projects to build new plants and Scotland voted against hosting new nuclear facilities on its soil. The region's two linchpins -- France and Germany -- have added nuclear power to their list of disagreements. The French rely on 58 nuclear reactors to produce more than three-fourths of their electricity, while the Germans plan to phase out nuclear power by 2022. Philippe Ricard of France's Le Monde newspaper reported last week that "Paris is wary of any attempt by the European Union to centralize the regulation of the nuclear sector.''

No matter what one thinks about the safety issues associated with nuclear power in a post-Fukushima world, one thing is certain: If the EU were stress-tested on its ability to promote regional cohesion, it would no doubt fail.

(David Henry is a Frankfurt-based editor for Bloomberg View.)

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-0- Oct/08/2012 18:16 GMT