June 16, 2024

Europe to Test Safety of Nuclear Reactors

BRUSSELS — After a week of bickering over the future of nuclear power, European Union leaders reached one point of agreement Friday as they decided that reactors across all 27 member nations should undergo safety tests in response to the continuing radiation leaks from a beleaguered plant in Japan.

The move — which came as Europe also remained split over action in Libya and as leaders struggled to calm markets with a plan to bolster the euro — was a rare note of accord on nuclear power.

“We cannot simply pursue business as usual” after the disaster in Japan, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said at the end of a two-day summit meeting of E.U. heads of state and government in Brussels.

The technology supplies about 30 percent of the Union’s electricity. But bitter divisions persist between countries like Austria, which banned nuclear energy in the late 1970s, and Britain, which is planning to build a new fleet of reactors to replace its aging models.

The tests agreed to Friday are voluntary, but José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said the tests should be conducted at all 143 reactors across the Union. Mr. Barroso also called for “comprehensive” tests on plants in neighboring countries like Switzerland.

The tests represent only a modest step toward centralized oversight of nuclear energy facilities in Europe, where member states zealously guard control over their energy industries. But Mrs. Merkel insisted that the reviews “will be somewhat different from the safety tests we have had up until now.”

The plan approved Friday calls for national regulators to conduct the tests on the basis of common criteria drafted with the European Commission. The leaders said national regulators would then make the results public. Each government would evaluate the results and make any decisions on shutdowns.

The tests should assess threats from earthquakes, floods, airplane crashes and terrorists and examine the robustness of backup cooling systems, according to Günther Oettinger, the bloc’s energy commissioner. The tests should also assess the security of ponds where highly radioactive spent fuel is stored, Luis Echávarri, director general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, said in an interview this week.

After an earthquake and a tsunami knocked out backup power, setting off a crisis at the Fukushima plant north of Tokyo, advocates of nuclear power have stepped up efforts to portray Europe, where severe earthquakes are rare, as being relatively safe. But opponents have seized on an opportunity to highlight concerns about the vulnerability of Russian-designed reactors in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and to discourage the construction of a new reactor in Bulgaria.

By backing the tests, Mrs. Merkel was partly seeking to assuage public concern ahead of a sensitive election on Sunday in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where there are a number of reactors. Germany gets about a quarter of its power from nuclear, but opposition to the technology is widespread, stoked by the accident at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, in 1986.

Mrs. Merkel already has ordered a temporary halt of seven of the oldest reactors in Germany. That signaled a major shift by the chancellor, who had previously supported extending the lives of many of those reactors.

Mrs. Merkel said at a news conference that “decommissioning and phasing out is one option, but there is also the modernization option” for reactors and plants that did not pass the tests. But analysts said Germany could be on the cusp of a more profound policy reversal

If Mrs. Merkel’s party were to lose the election Sunday, said Mark C. Lewis, a managing director at Deutsche Bank, “this would be such a shock to Germany’s body politic that the legislation to extend the operating lives of Germany’s nuclear reactors passed last October would almost certainly face very material changes, and some or all of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors an accelerated schedule for their permanent shutdown.”

The so-called stress tests approved by the Union are also a delicate matter for France, the world’s second-biggest nuclear power producer after the United States.

French officials want the tests to highlight how the reactors it manufactures — and that could become an important export — are the safest choice for nations choosing nuclear energy.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France suggested on Friday that what happened in Japan would not happen in landlocked countries and countries that had not experienced similar tsunamis in Europe. Even so, “were the tests to be failed or to be unsatisfactory we will take all necessary measures, which simply means shutting them down,” said Mr. Sarkozy, who added that all 58 reactors in France would be tested.

Earlier in the week, in thinly veiled criticism of Germany, the French energy minister, Éric Besson, said shutting plants on the basis of their age was not suitable in France because other risks, like flooding, based on the location of a plant, were likely to be more significant. Mr. Besson also criticized Mr. Oettinger, and a member of the same political party in Germany as Mrs. Merkel, for warning of an imminent catastrophe in Japan last week.

Opponents of nuclear power immediately complained that the tests will not be rigorous enough to lead to the closure of reactors that lack secondary containment, move spent fuel from vulnerable pools into dry storage, and halt plans for reactors in seismic regions.

“These stress tests are designed to give the impression that there’s a new evaluation of the risks of nuclear power,” said Rebecca Harms, a German member of the European Parliament. “But politicians in France and Germany really want to use them to win new acceptance for nuclear power,” she said.

In another sign of concern in Europe about events in Japan, E.U. food experts late on Thursday ordered random checks on food and animal feed imports for radioactive contamination.

When food and feed arrives in Europe from 12 prefectures in Japan including Fukushima and Tokyo, at least 10 percent of it will be randomly checked, including using laboratory analysis. Random inspections will also be made on 20 percent of food imports from Japan’s other 35 prefectures.

The European Commission, the E.U. executive, emphasized that food safety risks from Japan were low because of the relatively small amount of exports to Europe and because Japanese authorities had taken measures to block sales of any contaminated products.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/26/business/global/26nuke.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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