EU’s Eastern safety work attacked

30 November 1998

EUROPEAN UNION The European Commission has rejected much of the criticism of the European Union’s programme, managed through the Phare and Tacis programmes, to improve safety in Eastern European and former Soviet Union nuclear power plants. The criticisms are made by the Court of Auditors, who produced a separate report on this issue as part of its annual audit of EU activities. In it the Court of Auditors claims that less than half the ECU 850 million (about $980 million) allocated to the work has actually been spent, and a lot of that has been wasted.

“It is particularly worrying that at the end of 1997 it was not possible to judge whether there had been any actual progress in terms of nuclear safety,” said Bernhard Friedmann, Court of Auditors president, to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

“A constantly changing collection of staff in the unit responsible for the programme, insufficient tools for project administration and bookkeeping, as well as a lack of rigour in the administration have made it impossible for the Commission to follow up measures, deal with problems quickly or monitor the quality of services provided by contractors,” he continued. “Approximately one third of technical assistance (ECU 192 million) was contracted out without any tendering procedures. Firms of Western consultants were able to make excessive profits by taking the price of Western experts as the basis for the terms specified in the contracts, but in fact employing East European experts to do the work. The fees of Western experts are about fifteen times higher than those of East European experts with comparable skills.” Other criticisms in the report include the emphasis on supplying equipment over other aspects of developing a safety culture; a lack of transparency in the development of programmes, leading to misunderstandings and delays; and a lack of transparency in EU accounts, depriving managers and the Budget Authority of the means to ensure resources were being allocated efficiently. In work at Chernobyl the contracts entered into the accounts exceed the value of actual contracts, meaning that only 20% of the work and 8% of payments there have been covered by verifiable contracts.

On a planning level the report says that between 1990 and 1994, programmes were developed without a defined strategy and “it was only following requests from the Council and the Parliament that the entire matter was scrutinised in 1995”. Furthermore, in addressing nuclear safety problems in the formerly communist East, “the Commission has made no allowance for the political, social and economic realities in its programmes and has not acted in a transparent manner, which has caused tension among the recipients”.

In a statement of response, Lousewies van der Laan, a spokesperson for the Commission’s nuclear programme, said that the Commission considered a number of the criticisms unjustified and argued that the Court’s assessment “is based on a false premise, that external aid in this sector.... was to take direct responsibility for bringing Soviet-designed reactors up to international safety standards.” The objective of the aid is, instead, to help beneficiary countries meet their responsibilities and that ECU 50-60 billion is required to decommission or bring up to Western standards 65 Soviet designed reactors in the East.

The Commission does, however, accept the criticism regarding unwieldy procedures, slow implementation and staff turnover. It emphasises that the report does not suggest that any fraud has taken place and in response to the suggestion that Western companies are employing Eastern experts while charging Western rates, Van der Saar’s assistant Kathleen O’Connor told NEI that “if this is the case, it is obviously a matter of concern”.

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