EC’s ‘nuclear package’ to harmonise atomic energy in expanded EU&#151but environmentalists cry foul

Publish date: October 17, 2003

Written by: Soizick Martin

The European Commission’s “nuclear package”—a raft of legislative proposals for nuclear energy and waste safety that many environmentalists consider a smokescreen for further European Union atomic development—is currently under debate at the European Parliament, or EP.

Officials supporting the so-called “nuclear package”—which was proposed by the European Commission, or EC, in November 2002—say that the EU’s imminent expansion calls for a codification of a pan-European stance on atomic issues. In view of the EU’s coming enlargement, they say, the proposals set forth in the “nuclear package” would give the EC more supervisory powers over the safety of the nuclear sector, which is the current responsibility of the member states.

In a memorandum on the “nuclear package,” entitled “Toward a Community Approach to Nuclear Safety,” written on November 6th last year, the EC explains that today, it is not possible to consider nuclear safety from a purely national perspective, and that only a common approach by EU nations can guarantee that high nuclear safety standards will be maintained in an enlarged 25-to-28-member union.

The package’s opponents, however, say that the proposals contained within the package are misleading and conceal the package’s true aim, namely revitalising the European atomic energy industry.

Member of European Parliament, or MEP, Bart Staes—who is also the rapporteur for the EP’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy, or ENVI—said the EC’s proposals will have an adverse effect on nuclear safety if implemented in their current form and public health and the environment will suffer.

“The nuclear safety proposal sets out only basic obligations and general principles—this is useless. All member states in the EU or accession countries are already party to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Nuclear Safety Convention,” Staes said.

“The Commission’s proposal does not introduce any substantial improvements on existing regimes. The only credible option is to introduce enforceable and up-to-date safety standards—without these the legislation should not move forward.”

Staes, who is also the chairman of the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee of the EP, underscored that some of the package’s provisions could lead to exporting nuclear waste to countries outside the EU, specifically Russia. Staes also serves as the co-chairman—with Russian State Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin—of Bellona’s Inter-Parliamentary Working Group, or IPWG, on nuclear waste management in the Russian Federation.


The ‘Nuclear Package’ and the Roots of Controversy
Nuclear safety is currently the responsibility of each individual member state of the EU. After the EU adopted a Green Paper on the security of the European energy supply on November 29th 2000, the question of nuclear energy’s position among other EU energy sources was first raised.

At that time, Loyola de Palacio, the EC’s vice-president and commissioner for the Directorate General for Transport and Energy, or DG-TREN, recognised the need for a new Europe-wide position for the nuclear sector that would be independent of the energy policy choices made by individual EU states.

Given that the EU will soon be enlarging—incorporating former Soviet republics and Soviet Bloc countries that still operate aging Soviet-built nuclear reactors—DG-TREN adopted the “nuclear package” on November 6th 2002. This has sparked the controversy among European NGOs, which continues to rage as the package is currently debated by the EP.

The Euratom Treaty
The use of nuclear energy in Europe is legally governed by the 1957 Euratom Treaty, which provides safeguards, much like those of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, for the operation of nuclear installations and the use of nuclear materials. But, unlike IAEA, Euratom does not set standards on nuclear safety that have the force of law.

Euratom has been a lighting rod of controversy in recent months in the debate over European Convention Chairman Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s draft Convention on the future of the EU.
Environmental observers point out that the Euratom Treaty has never been subject to any serious amendments in its 45-year history, and was inked for the support and development of nuclear energy at a time when the future of the then-new and barely tested energy source was unclear. But time and experience have shown the majority of EU member states that nuclear energy is both dangerous and unprofitable.

It is against this background that the current debate about the nuclear package is taking place.

What’s in the Nuclear Package’s Various Legislative Proposals
The EC’s proposals of November 2002 consist of a directive defining the basic obligations and general principles on the safety of nuclear installations during operation and decommissioning. It includes common safety standards and monitoring mechanisms based on the Western European Nuclear Regulators’ Association, or WENRA, and IAEA’s rules and principles.

Since November 2002, the proposals have been redrafted, and although there have not been many changes, these changes appear significant and increase the concerns of policy makers and the public.

The proposals include requirements that each EU member state have its own independent nuclear safety regulatory agency, and a peer review system to inspect the inspectors. Reports would be published every two years on the nuclear safety status of the European Union. The EC said, however, that it has no intention of setting up on-the-spot safety inspections or of developing a corps of European nuclear inspectors—a sign interpreted by environmental NGOs and other observers that there is a lack of confidence that the new EU regulations will in fact enhance nuclear safety.

Many critics said the proposed directives from the EC did not define common safety standards, but only required the establishment of common safety principles. As a result, there would be no significant increase in nuclear safety, as all countries in the EU and accession countries that have nuclear power plants are already party to the IAEA’s Nuclear Safety Convention, which has similar sphere of responsibility.

The EC also proposed adequate financial resources to decommission older nuclear power plants within the EU.

“Many of the nuclear installations in the European Union are coming to the end of their service life, while in the candidate countries—including Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovakia—eight reactors will have to be shut down by 2009. Sufficient financial resources must be set aside to ensure safe decommissioning,” the commission wrote in its November 2002 memorandum.

In order to do this, the proposed directive defines the establishment, management and use of these funds to ensure that decommissioning takes place “in a way that protects the population and the environment from ionising radiation.” It also provides that “decommissioning funds earmarked by nuclear installation operators for decommissioning must be managed separately from their other financial resources.”

The commission also proposed a directive to EU members to provide clear responses, within reasonable periods of time, for dealing with radioactive waste. Under this directive, member states would be required to prioritise geological burial of high-level radioactive waste—arguably the safest disposal method known to date—and accept the obligation of adopting a timetable by which they would achieve this goal.

This proposed directive would require EU member states to site geological repositories by 2008 and have them fully operational by 2018. Member states would also be required to have fully operational facilities for low-level waste storage by 2013. These timetables, however, were criticised by many NGOs and policy makers as too tight, as they would not allow adequate time for public consultation and scientific analysis.

Finally, the commission proposed a draft decision authorising the EC to negotiate an agreement between Euratom and the Russian Federation on trade in nuclear materials. On this issue, the memorandum states that “this agreement will have to protect the interests of European consumers and maintain the viability of the European industries, in particular the enrichment industry,” taking into account the new conditions of the EU’s enlarged market.

But that directive could also encourage the export of waste outside the EU, namely to Russia or other states from the former Soviet Union. Such exports, say Bellona and other European NGOs, should be firmly banned and the directive must set clear terms that would ensure such exports do not occur.

‘Nuclear Package’ Greeted With Criticism
As soon as the package of nuclear legislation was made public, it was greeted by nearly unanimous protest from European NGOs, many of which dubbed EC Vice-President and Commissioner for Transport and Energy de Palacio as “Nuclear Power Commissioner de Palacio.”

The NGOs said that the commission’s proposals are a smokescreen behind which it wishes to develop nuclear power. They called for a suspension of the “nuclear package” and began a campaign to bury the outdated, unreformed and undemocratic Euratom Treaty.

The nuclear industry also panned the commission’s proposals for different reasons. Represented by Foratom and Eurelectric, the European nuclear industry claimed that standardising nuclear safety at the EU level would not add any safety benefits, the news service reported.

Foratom and Eurelectric also challenged the EC’s legal jurisdiction in the area of nuclear safety and called for member states to retain their own national responsibility over nuclear regulation.

EP’s Debate on the Commission’s Package
On October 6th the EP’s Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy, or ITRE, discussed two reports on the “nuclear package” presented by two EP rapporteurs. One of the reports, concerning the commission’s nuclear safety directive, was presented by European United Left Party MEP Esko Olavi Seppänen, who criticised the proposal by saying that it fails to evaluate potential problems in today’s nuclear safety regulation. He also said it offered only a repetition of the already established IAEA Nuclear Safety Convention.

Seppänen’s report also challenged the legal basis of the commission’s proposals, saying that the commission was attempting to expand its jurisdiction to the field of nuclear legislation. Seppänen’s criticism was based on the EC’s denial that it plans to define nuclear standards for member states.

Also addressing the proposed directive on nuclear waste on October 6th was EP rapporteur Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca, an MEP from the PPE-DE group, the EP’s Conservative Party. He welcomed the commission’s initiative to promote an EU-wide solution to the issue. Nonetheless, he said the EP should have deeper involvement in the decision-making process surrounding the radioactive waste disposal issue.

Like the NGOs, Vidal-Quadras Roca said the commission’s deadlines for EU member states’ development of deep geological repositories were too tight, and suggested a more flexible timetable for their realisation.

The two draft reports are scheduled for discussion by the ITRE Committee on November 3rd and will be put to a committee vote on November 26th, with a final vote at the plenary session of the EP in Strasbourg in mid-December.

‘No’ To Exporting EU Nuclear Waste
MEP Staes remained critical on the proposals.

“Fundamentally, the proposals will encourage member states to export their nuclear waste to countries with lower environmental standards, such as Russia and Kazakhstan,” said Staes, who along with some 10 MEPs and Russian parliamentarians visited the Kola Peninsula’s main nuclear installations in a trip organised by Bellona’s IPGW.

Staes underscored that the export of nuclear waste outside the EU must be completely banned.

“People who have not benefited from the Union’s nuclear installations should not carry the burden of dealing with our nuclear waste,” he said.