Upcoming EU enlargement revives long-standing nuclear battle

Publish date: February 10, 2004

Written by: Soizick Martin

BRUSSELS—On the first of May later this year, the European Union will take 10 new member states on board, five of which are still operating nuclear power plants with so-called high-risk reactors. Four of the new Member States run Soviet design reactors—the VVER-440-230 and the fatally flawed, Chernobyl style RBMK series—all in need of maintenance or, better, complete shut-down.

The question of what to do about these reactors issues has sent the EU on a quest to codify new nuclear safety standards, but the international intricacies militate against simple standardization finding common ground raises many questions. Chief among these is, will the inclusion of these reactors on the EU grid lead to a revival for Europe’s nuclear industry?

A short history of nuclear power in Europe
The use of nuclear energy in Europe has been legally governed by the 1957 Euratom Treaty since the inception of the European Community. The treaty provides safeguards to for the safe operation of nuclear installations and the use of nuclear materials that are similar to those provided by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. Unlike the IAEA, however, Euratom sets no standards that have the force of law on nuclear safety and radioactive waste.

By the 1970’s nuclear power programmes in Europe had worked up a substantial head of steam and were diverging along very different paths. So were the national systems for regulating them. Cooperation between the EU’s biggest nuclear powers was governed, over time, by a “non-binding acquis” built on common fundamental principles.

With May’s planned enlargement of the EU to the east, a number of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors in the countries to be incorporated will soon be part of the European Community.. It has therefore become an urgent task for the European Commission, or EC, to harmonize its nuclear safety regulations. An EC policy paper, authored three years ago entitled “Agenda 2000” called for this harmonization process to be addressed immediately.

In response, the EC released a package in November 2002, including proposed directives defining the basic safety principles for nuclear installations—both during operation and decommissioning—within the EU. The set of proposals, which aim to become directives for the definition of safety at European nuclear power plants, are known as the “Nuclear Package.”

“While we can be proud of having an excellent level of nuclear safety in the EU, the shortcomings in nuclear legislation in the run-up to enlargement need to be overcome,” EC Vice-President in charge of energy and transport Loyola de Palacio said in a January 30th 2003 statement about the nuclear package.

“These proposals for directives are being adopted at a time when the Court of Justice recently confirmed the European Community’s legislative power with regards to the safety of nuclear facilities.”

But the Nuclear Package’s jurisdiction has been disputed on many fronts. In a report to the Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy Esko Olavi Seppanen, a United Left Party MEP and Rapporteur on the directive, challenged the ECs legal basis for even making its suggestions in the nuclear safety package.

The European nuclear industry has likewise criticized—for somewhat different reasons— what it sees as the Commissions unjustifiable expansion of its Jurisdiction, and called for member states to retain their own national responsibility over nuclear regulation.

In his report, Seppanen added the EC was attempting to expand its jurisdiction to nuclear legislation, and that the Nuclear Package’s Safety Directive fails to evaluate potential problems of current nuclear safety regulation.

The Nuclear Package and its authority
The Nuclear Package has been heavily criticised by environmentalist and Green MEPs, alike. Their objections centre mainly on the fact that the document fails to introduce clear and precise nuclear safety standards that are legally enforceable. Proposals to introduce these safety standards at a later date would be insufficient, say environmentalists and Green MEPs.

Since the package’s first draft was publicized in November, 2002, its proposed Nuclear Safety Directive has been through many rewrites which some observers say has taken out its biting teeth. For instance, each EU nation in the original document was to report on its progress toward realizing the nuclear safety directive every year. In its present draft form, the package stipulates nations have only to report every three years on their progress.

It has been criticised as a set of mere “common safety principles” recommended to member states. Environmentalists and some MEPs argue it will bring about no significant changes in nuclear safety. All EU and candidate countries that have nuclear power plants are, furthermore, already party to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA’s, Nuclear Safety Convention, whose responsibilities are similar to that which is codified in the nuclear package.

“The whole annex on decommissioning of nuclear facilities has been removed from the Nuclear Safety Directive and there is no intention of addressing the issue of segregated funds under the Euratom Treaty,” said Antony Froggatt an independent nuclear analyst, according to

This would mean that money gathered for the funds could unfairly support the development of the nuclear industry—funds that can be used for more or less anything involving nuclear development on the continent. This, in its turn, would create a market distortion as other EU energy sectors do not receive such generous funding.


Complications in nuclear trade relations after EU expansion
The EU and Russia are important partners in the energy field: 53percent of Russia’s oil exports go to the EU, representing 16 percent of total EU oil consumption. Sixty two percent of Russia’s natural gas exports go to the EU, making up 20 percent of total EU natural gas consumption. The EU-Russia Energy Dialogue, which was launched in October 2000 “to make progress in the definition and arrangements for the EU-Russia Energy Partnership,” covers oil, gas, electricity, coal, nuclear power and energy efficiency.

Russia also supplies 25 percent of Europe’s natural and enriched uranium, a guaranteed amount that Moscow is concerned will be negatively affected by EU enlargement. According to Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Valery Govorukhin, Russia reaps an annual $150m from the sales—a cash crop that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko said in a recent interview with Itar-Tass, Russia intends to preserve. Additionally, Russia supplies nuclear fuel to all of the Soviet built reactors that will fall under EU jurisdiction as of May 1st.

According to Govorukhin, as quoted by Itar-Tass, Russia’s “Atomic Energy Ministry is aiming at preserving its market niche, not at increasing its quota for delivering these materials to European countries."

Khristenko, who has been the most vocal official for Moscow maintaining its 25 percent export right, as well as maintaining its hold on nuclear fuel sales to the countries holding Soviet built reactors, told Itar-Tass in early February that he is ready for “intensive talks” with the EU on the subject.

“A mandate for conducting negotiations on the import of natural and enriched uranium for its delivery to the European atomic energy market has been received from the government members of the EC,” Khristenko said.

According to Khristenko, problems are already arising as candidate states transfer to the EU’s system of uniform standards and certifications for imports. Under this system, a candidate state will have to certify that imports from Russia are in accordance with EU standards. This system is most dramatically affecting imports of Russian electricity, automobiles and nuclear fuel. To defray these difficulties, Khristenko suggested the creation of joint certification centres in Russia and the EU with all points to be negotiated before May 1, reported.

In an early February email interview, EC Head of Unit on Nuclear Safety Taylor confirmed that the Commission adopted in December a proposal for the negotiating mandate with Russia, about which Khristenko spoke.

“The main objective of an agreement is to effectively agree on a limit to the amount of Russian uranium that should be imported into the EU which would increase in percentage terms—as a percentage of total EU supply—as a direct result of enlargement,” Taylor wrote. “The most important part is not so much the natural uranium (as we no longer have an EU uranium mining industry, so have to import all our supply) but enriched uranium, as we still have two important uranium enrichment organisations.”

Those organisations are URENCO and EURODIF, Taylor wrote, which might have a difficult time competing if enriched Russian uranium were dumped onto the European market.

Russia’s total annual export of nuclear technology and materials to all the countries it exports to is valued at some $3 billion, Govorukhin said. This figure includes deliveries of fresh nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants, the construction of new nuclear plants and reactors in a number of countries—which include at present Iran, India and China—and supplies of enriched uranium for the production of nuclear fuel, he said.

Beyond nuclear questions, the expansion of the EU is going to drastically change the geopolitical situation in Europe and its relationship to Russia, Khristenko said, according to Some 35 percent of Russian exports currently go to the EU and that will grow to 50 percent after expansion. A broadened EU will thus have a “controlling stake” in Russia’s foreign Trade, he said. If EU-Russian negotiations over uranium imports take that same turn, then Europe could indeed be inundated with Russian nuclear fuel with no place to put it but reactors.

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