April 19, 2024

Europe Treads Carefully on Stress Tests for Nuclear Plants

BRUSSELS — European regulators agreed Wednesday that new safety tests for the region’s 143 operating nuclear reactors, called for in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan, would include some man-made disasters as well as natural ones.

But the European Commission said there would be a separate process to check whether nuclear operators could adequately thwart acts of terrorism, because of sharp differences among governments about encroaching on sensitive areas of defense and security.

The E.U. Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger told a news conference that the tests would be robust.

“The quality and the depth of this stress test is such as to fulfill the requirements of the European citizen to live in a safe environment,” said Mr. Oettinger. “All of this will be done in as transparent way as possible.”

Greenpeace, an environmental group that opposes nuclear power, strongly disagreed.

The tests “won’t be independent, won’t cover plans for emergencies and won’t always tell us whether some of Europe’s most obvious terrorist targets are protected or not,” said Jan Haverkamp, a nuclear policy adviser at Greenpeace.

Britain, France and the Czech Republic were among countries that had fought hardest to water down the tests, said Mr. Haverkamp.

France relies on nuclear power for about 80 percent of its electricity and is a major exporter of nuclear technology. Britain generates around 18 percent of its electricity from nuclear but faces the prospect of a worsening energy shortfall if forced to shut its reactors. The Czech Republic still mines uranium for sale to nuclear power generators.

Still, the prospect of a nuclear meltdown in Japan has triggered public protests in Europe against atomic power, which remains a hugely sensitive matter after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. The German government reversed a previous decision to extend the life of its nuclear plants.

E.U. governments had called for the tests in March, in the wake of the disaster in Japan. Although they remain voluntary, the European Commission recommended that the 14 member states with reactors producing electricity begin testing for so-called man-made events by June 1.

Those tests would in some cases be more rigorous than routine safety checks.

For example power plants built to withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of six on the Richter scale would be tested for earthquakes of a higher magnitude, although it would be up to national authorities to define how much tougher to make the criteria.

The tests also would include peer-review teams composed of seven people, drawing from regulators from all 27 E.U. countries and the European Commission. Those teams would have leeway to conduct inspections inside nuclear plants.

According to the commission, the key goal of the tests is to prevent the kind of accident in Europe that struck the reactors at Fukushima, Japan, after the earthquake and tsunami knocked out the power supply that was necessary to cool the fuel rods.

The commission said nuclear operators would need to describe what would happen if their reactors lost power for “several days” and what measures were in place if primary back up systems powered by batteries also failed.

The tests would include a review of containment systems to ensure they could withstand an air crash or the explosion of a nearby oil tanker, whether as a result of an accident or a terror attack. The tests would also seek to ascertain whether there were adequate systems to put out any resulting fire from explosions occurring near nuclear power plants.

E.U. authorities still need to set a schedule for checking whether reactors could withstand a wider range of terror attacks, possibly including cyber attacks. Those tests are far more sensitive because governments want to avoid revealing any vulnerabilities of their reactors.

The commission said that reactors failing the tests should be shut down and decommissioned if safety upgrades were too difficult or too expensive. But it acknowledged that it had no authority to order such shutdowns.

The European Commission said national operators and regulators had agreed to make their findings public, despite initial concerns in Paris and London that publishing certain information might encourage attacks. Governments would present a final report on the tests at the end of year.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=acac9d0658bcbcd9ef3366514abd9bba

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