(June 19, 1998) Nuclear (un-)safety will be on many European political agendas in the next months or even years. Over the last years, the countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have been standing in line to gain access to the European Union. At present the EU is composed of 15 countries. But 11 countries (10 CEE countries and Cyprus) are set to join the EU in the coming decades. By seeking admission, they hope to have access to EU financial aid for poorer regions, to get money to develop their industries and to gain access to the European Union single market. The principles and conditions for accession are described in the so-called Agenda 2000 which also contains some words on nuclear safety.
After the disaster of Chernobyl in 1986 everybody - including the nuclear sector and politicians - said that all unsafe reactors in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union had to be shut down. But this did not happen. At the moment 50 Soviet-designed reactors are in operation in the CEE countries and NIS (New Independent States; the former Soviet Union). The West is divided about which action to follow. It has an inconsistent policy.
While the EU member-states have to tighten their belts to meet the agreed common standards for a common currency in Europe, the EU has spent hundreds of millions of ECU* for all kinds of different research and upgrade programs in Central and Eastern Europe. In the coming years the European Commission will be spending additional hundreds of millions on upgrading activities. This money will be spent although it has already been clear for years now that closure and help with really sustainable energy programs is, besides being environmentally sound and safe, even more economical.
Since 1994 the Euratom loans (established to spend on promotion of nuclear energy within the EU) can also be allocated for nuclear projects in Eastern Europe.
But, nevertheless, these will not be enough. In a recent report, the European Commission said of Eastern Europe that "the number of nuclear installations and the amount of nuclear material are so big that the attempts from outside to improve nuclear safety and security remain necessarily incommensurate with the needs".1 Some Eastern European governments see their chances in getting financial aid and are blackmailing the West: if you don't give us money, we will keep running unsafe nuclear power plants. The EU is not preventing this kind of policy by failing to secure closure time schedules for those reactors, and a clear policy for financing alternative replacement capacity.
The worrying indications that the issue of nuclear safety would again be downplayed are increasing. The West is divided about which action to follow. While conducting an inconsistent policy, it keeps transferring large amounts of ECUs in the direction of Eastern Europe. The funds seem to be mainly profitable to Western big reactor builders and consultancy firms.
"The European Union's assistance should be driven by the following basic concerns: (..)
- The recognition that a further major incident involving a nuclear power plant in an eastern country would undermine the nuclear power sector in the EU Member-States, which produces a large percentage of electricity".2
More important, however, is the fact that no one seems to know what will happen when the concerned countries become full members of the EU. Already in the process towards full membership, one can see a shift in the current EU members' policies. The agreements on earlier closure of the so-called high-risk reactors are weakened and the commission fully admits that it is pretty much unsure what would happen when the countries have their more direct influence implemented.
In June 1998, Austria will take over the EU presidency from the United Kingdom (presidency rotates every half year), and it will very probably focus attention on some environmental questions such as nuclear safety. Several neighboring countries of Austria have unsafe reactors.
Important in this case is the fact that Austria, in its 1995 accession process, brought up the discussion on future European support for nuclear energy.3 Although this was not directly successful, it has since then supported the establishment of a Coalition of Nuclear-Free Countries. As Austria has a national antinuclear policy, laid down in legislation, we hope the Austrians will use the presidency of the EU to highlight the sometimes hypocritical and at least unclear European policy on nuclear safety in the Central and Eastern European countries.
In the current European Union, a majority of the countries are already de facto nuclear-free or at least will become nuclear-free in the very near future, with the exception of France. None of the EU countries have an active program for the increase of nuclear-power capacity. The nuclear-free countries should identify the process of enlargement as an opportunity to again discuss the support the EU is giving to nuclear energy, not only in the CEE countries but as well within the current EU.
We hope that this special issue will help to increase the knowledge about the accession program and the European Union. In researching the Agenda 2000 issue, we found out several times that knowledge about the stucture and role of the European Union, the Parliament, Council and Commission is very inadequate, even among civil servants working in these institutions, or among members of the European Parliament, not to mention civil servants in the member-states.
* An ECU is the European Currency Unit (1 ECU = US$1.1), from 2002 there will be one currency in 11 EU countries: the Euro.