You are here


Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: European Nuclear Threats: Old and New

(November 14, 2003)  The enlargement of the European Union has already and will continue to impact upon nuclear power. The accession of some countries was conditional upon the closure of reactors of certain designs, the RBMK and first genera-tion of VVER 440. This resulted in agreements to close eight reactors in three countries in Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovakia. The first two of these reactors were closed in Bulgaria at the end of 2002. However, continued international attention and assistance must be given to these three countries to ensure that the remaining six reactors are closed in line with current commitments. The closure agreements finally agreed to prior to the Helsinki EU summit in 1999 on average extended the operational life of the reactors in question by five years, over the agreements previously negotiated. This will mean that for the first time both RBMK - the same design as utilised at the Chernobyl station in Ukraine - and VVER 440-230 reactors, will operate in the EU.

The enlargement process highlights the fact that the EU does not have any specific requirements on nuclear safety standards. Consequently, agreements to increase the safety standards of other designs of reactors in accession countries could not be legally enforced following enlargement. The European Commission stated that legislation was needed to address this shortfall and at the end of 2002 they proposed two Directives. These Directives, kno wn as the 'nuclear package' initially proposed an initial Directive to introduce obligations and general principles on the safety of nuclear installations with a commitment to introduce further legislation to establish common safety standards and control mechanisms to a guaranteed high level of safety at a later date. However, opposition from Member States is leading to either the abandonment of the Directives or their introduction with no significant power and only peer review processes addresses the regulators - with no inspections of nuclear facilities- and no intention to introduce further legislation. The initial draft of the Directive also included proposals to address the issue of decommissioning funds. Nuclear utilities are required to accumulate funds during the operation of reactors to pay for decommissioning and radioactive waste management activities once the facilities are closed. These funds must be carefully managed to ensure that in decades to come they are sufficient to cover the cost of the work necessary. However, opposition from some Member States, particularly, the French and German Governments have resulted in requirements for the independent management of these funds have now been removed from current drafts of the Directive. The second Directive on radioactive waste management proposed to accelerate programmes for the disposal of radioactive waste. Pan European dates, regardless of the current status in Member States, have been proposed. Such dates would ignore the different approaches from Member States and require deep geological disposal for high-level waste. This approach would rule out the opportunity for monitoring and potentially retrieve damaged waste, both of which are potentially necessary to reduce the future contamination of the environment.

Both proposed Directives have been justified through the Euratom Treaty. This Treaty is one of the corner stones of the current European Union and was first signed in 1957. Since then it has continued to support the development of nuclear power within the EU and has not been subject to any significant reform. Consequently, the functions of the Treaty are not subject to the same democratic controls as other EU functions, with most notably no co-decision with the European Parliament. The Euratom Treaty has particular functions to support nuclear power. In particular there is a specific loan facility that has been used to fund the development of nuclear power and nuclear facilities across Europe. Both the European Council and Parliament are currently reviewing the future of the loan facility. A proposal has been put forward by the European Commission to further extend the facility by € 2 billion. Under Euratom there is also a specific research and development fund to assist with the further development of nuclear fission and fusion. This fund is not subject to the same democratic scrutiny as the rest of the EU's research and development programmes and awards nuclear technologies 50% more funding than all other energy sources combined.

In October 2003 the EU launched its latest Inter-Government Conference (IGC) to prepare a constitution for the EU. This is supposed to streamline the current institutions and Treaties in preparation for an EU of 25 Member States. The current draft of the Constitution does not propose to reform the Euratom Treaty, but rather include it in its entirety as a Protocol. The European Parliament and some Member States have called for the IGC to address the question of Euratom reform.

During the 1990s EU Member States introduced policies to privatise and liberalise their electricity markets. The EU also introduced a Directive to unify policies for liberalisation across the Union. In 2004 Member States will be required to transpose a revised electricity market Directive to further accelerate the process. This will require competition for all electricity suppliers by mid 2007 and further separation requirements for the different actors in the electricity market, in particular the legal separation of the grid operators from generators and suppliers. Such measures are supposed to increase price transparency and ensure 'a level playing field' between electricity generators. The Directive will also require that all consumers receive information about the generation mix and pollution created by electricity production.

The introduction of electricity liberalisation has impacted upon nuclear power. In the case of British Energy, in the UK, the new electricity regime has resulted in its near bankruptcy. The utility was only saved by a € 1 billion Government loan and then a restructuring package which, if eventually approved by the European Commission, additional Government subsidies totally around € 5 billion. Electricity market liberalisation has impacted upon utilities desire to construct new nuclear power stations. In the EU there are no nuclear reactors under construction and officially in accession countries there are only two - in Slovakia. Only in Finland and France is there any Government support for the construction of new reactors. This has resulted in the gradual ageing of Europe's nuclear reactor fleet and the effective phase out of nuclear power across the Union.

In recent months a number of countries have experienced supply difficulties, resulting in localised or widespread blackouts. This has increased the call for the construction of new reactors in a number of Member States. It is clear that investment in parts of electricity sector has decreased in recent years, however, careful analysis needs to be undertaken before concluding what action must be taken. But what is clear is that the blackouts were not caused by the lack of installed base-load capacity but rather the lack of co-ordination between grid operators, over-reliance on large-scale centralised production facilities and a lack of investments in the grid.

The coming decades will be a crucial period for the EU's electricity industry. Increased investment will be required to ensure security of supply and to meet the EU's environmental objectives. However, it is clear that nuclear power is not able to meet the environmental and economic considerations necessary to contribute to a sustainable energy future for Europe.