Europe stalls on nuclear package

The European Commission has once again revised the ‘nuclear package’ on safety and waste disposal. But many EU states remain opposed to this draft legislation, writes Siàƒ¢n Green.

The European Commission last month put forward revised versions of two pieces of draft legislation covering nuclear safety and radioactive waste management in the European Union (EU). The Commission, and in particular, Loyola de Palacio, vice-president responsible for energy and transport, is keen to see the legislation adopted as quickly as possible, but several Member States and EU actors are opposed to key parts of the legislation.

The draft legislation ” known as the ‘nuclear package’ ” is designed to introduce a common European approach on nuclear safety and waste disposal standards. It also includes detailed regulations on nuclear decommissioning funds and would be legally binding for all EU Member States.

“The Commission would now like to see these two proposals, which are vital for the safety of nuclear energy within the enlarged European Union, discussed without delay by the Council so that this new legislation can be adopted quickly,” said de Palacio. “These are key instruments for ensuring greater transparency, rationalising the debate and dispelling public fears regarding this source of energy.”

The Commission has revised the package in response to persistent opposition from a number of Member States, including the UK, Germany and Finland. These Member States, as well as industry bodies such as Foratom and Eurelectric, have opposed it largely on the basis of the success of current national nuclear regulations and competence.

Nuclear energy plays a significant role in many EU Member States’ power industries
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While nuclear safety is currently the responsibility of Member States, the Commission argues that the recent enlargement of the EU means that there should be greater harmonization of standards. It has expressed concerns about the safety of nuclear installations in some of the new Member States as well as other candidate countries. Nuclear power currently accounts for about 32 per cent of total electricity production in the enlarged EU, while five of the ten new Member States have older nuclear power plants based on Soviet designs.

The nuclear package was first introduced in November 2002 and consists of two draft directives on the safety of nuclear power plants and the processing of radioactive waste. The package was revised and a new draft published in January 2003.

The latest package is a somewhat watered-down version of the earlier proposals, and would see the Commission take a much less powerful role on nuclear safety than originally envisaged. Nevertheless, the Commission is likely to continue to face opposition.

Several Member States have stated that they do not expect the proposals to bring an improvement in nuclear safety. Foratom, the Brussels-based trade association representing Europe’s nuclear energy industry, has pointed out that existing arrangements for ensuring nuclear safety ” i.e. strict regulation at national level ” have delivered excellent results. It also believes that the industry has always actively promoted the harmonization of nuclear safety rules and practices, and considers the safety system developed under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be an appropriate framework.

The Commission claims that the latest package responds to Member States’ concerns over interference in national legislation by stating that the responsibility for nuclear safety rests with national authorities. However, certain Member States, in particular Germany, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Slovenia and the Czech Republic are likely to continue to jealously guard their national responsibilities. The UK iterated the fact that nuclear energy is a domestic issue in its initial response to legal action launched by the Commission over the Sellafield plant (see page 9).

Member States may be more happy with the European Commission’s revised text on decommissioning funds, however. The draft legislation no longer calls for Member States to provide securely ring-fenced funds for dismantling nuclear power stations, although there is an obligation to ensure that adequate financial resources are available.

Germany in particular was opposed to the proposals concerning decommissioning funds. Foratom had also argued that each country should have the freedom to develop its own way of financing in line with its own needs and regulations. Special consideration should also be allowed for candidate countries that face the early closure of their reactors, says Foratom.

In the directive on radioactive waste disposal, the latest nuclear package no longer specifies deep geological waste disposal as a legal requirement, but does require Member States to give priority to this treatment if possible. In addition, the original approach of a firm timetable for national management programmes has also been abandoned. However, Member States would still be required to submit their national programmes to the Commission.

There has been little reaction to the new revised nuclear package so far from Member States, but initial reports indicate that it received at best a lukewarm reception. “Nuclear must be allowed to continue to play an important role in helping the EU to meet its economic and environmental targets. This marks the start of another process that we hope will conclude with the position of nuclear in Europe being strengthened and not weakened,” said Foratom in a statement. Press reports indicate that the positions of the UK and Germany remain unchanged.

The new proposals will now be sent to the European Parliament and to the Council for discussion. The Commission is hoping to see the legislation adopted in the first half of 2005.

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