Making Nuclear Energy In Europe Even Safer

By Philip Lowe, Director General for Energy, European Commission, DG ENER
Autumn 2013

Time has moved on and the shock of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in spring 2011 has already faded in terms of media priorities. Whilst no longer headline news, Fukushima, nevertheless, will have a lasting impact around the world. It shook public trust in the safety of nuclear energy production to its very roots and directly led to the stress testing of nuclear power plants here in Europe.

Between 2011 und 2012 the European Stress Tests assessed the responses of nuclear power plants to severe external events and made recommendations for improving their design in order to reduce, even further, the chances of a nuclear accident occurring in Europe. These Stress Tests extended beyond the borders of the EU and involved also the Ukraine, Switzerland and for parts of the exercise Turkey, Armenia and Belarus. This follows a longstanding tradition of international collaboration under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

By the end of 2012, both Member States and participating non-EU members had to draw up national action plans to implement the Stress Test recommendations. These were peer-reviewed during an international workshop in Brussels in order to ensure a consistent implementation of these recommendations throughout Europe. While the Stress Test exercise showed the benefits of international coordination and cooperation, the implementation of the Stress Test recommendations remains a national responsibility. The Commission is monitoring this implementation process in close cooperation with national regulators and intends to issue a report in June 2014. The European Nuclear Safety Regulators' Group (ENSREG) will come out with a follow-up peer review in 2015.

I am convinced that the future of nuclear energy will depend to a large extent on public acceptance and trust in the safety of nuclear operations. This requires a modern and transparent way of deciding on nuclear safety provisions. As a consequence, following a wide public consultation, last June the Commission adopted a proposal for a directive reviewing the existing European framework for the safety of nuclear installations, the 2009 Nuclear Safety Directive.

The Commission's proposal complements and strengthens the provisions of the 2009 directive. It further increases transparency on nuclear safety matters and enhances the role and effective independence of the national regulatory authorities. It introduces ambitious safety objectives which are shared at the EU level, and a European system of peer reviews of nuclear installations, successfully practiced in the Stress Tests.

Whilst on-site emergency management in the event of a severe accident was one of the topics covered by the stress tests, off-site emergency management was not included since it does not fall under the responsibility of nuclear safety regulators, but rather Member States' authorities. It is being dealt with in a dialogue between the Commission and ENSREG. In January 2013, the Commission launched a study on existing arrangements in the EU's Member States and in neighbouring countries. By the end of this year, we intend to identify possible improvements and communicate them to the Council and the Parliament.

Nuclear insurance and liability is another important element for a modern nuclear safety framework. In the EU, different international conventions apply and some EU Member States are not party to any convention at all. Victim compensation levels for example still vary widely across the EU and are in general insufficient.

Furthermore, claims management is not addressed by the Member States in the case of a crossborder accident. This issue also impacts on the internal market. The Commission therefore set up an informal expert group on this matter which presented its recommendations several months ago. The overall aim is to propose a legislative initiative on nuclear third party liability insurance in early 2014.

If we want to make nuclear energy in Europe even safer - and the focus areas are now pretty well identified - we all need to work together in the years to come. Let us all assume our respective responsibilities, from operators and regulators to the European institutions.