Imperfect harmony

19 July 2006

Several years have elapsed since common nuclear safety standards across the whole of the European Union were first proposed. Would European directives increase safety at nuclear facilities, as the European Commission insists, or is this a case of Brussels wanting to seize more bureaucratic control?

At the end of 2001, the Laeken Summit of the European Council concluded that the safety of nuclear installations in the European Union (EU) needed to be monitored. The following April, Loyola de Palacio, who was then the European Commission’s (EC’s) vice president in charge of energy and transport, proposed an EU-wide approach to nuclear safety in the form of common standards and mechanisms of control. On 6 November 2002 the EC proposed and adopted the ‘nuclear package’ of measures on safety standards, radioactive waste management and uranium imports.

At the time, de Palacio stated: “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.” With the EU due to be enlarged to 25 states (from 15) on 1 January 2004, this left little time for the nuclear package of directives to enter into force.

The EC reasoned that enlargement meant it was no longer possible “to consider nuclear safety from a purely national perspective. Only a common approach can guarantee that high nuclear safety standards will be maintained in an enlarged 25- or even 28-member union.” The EC concluded: “A new community reference framework on nuclear safety standards is therefore indispensable. It would be inconceivable for the union to monitor nuclear safety in just the new member states but not in the rest of the enlarged union.”

Yet the draft directives came up against much opposition and were not passed by the January 2004 deadline. Now, in mid 2006 and after several significant changes, the nuclear package remains as a set of proposals. Why is it that the EC is having so much difficulty in passing laws that it sees as essential for increasing nuclear safety across the EU?


One of the principal arguments against the nuclear package is that harmonised standards on a global level already exist. In a July 2004 statement, Tomihiro Taniguchi, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy director general - head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, pointed out: “The present IAEA safety standards reflect an international consensus on what constitutes a high level of safety for protecting people and the environment.” He added: “Developing separate European safety standards would lead to confusion in the nuclear industry and among the public and be a waste of resources. The IAEA safety standards can adequately be adopted and applied in the European context to further enhance common global standards.”

The role of the EC would therefore be to make the IAEA standards legally enforceable in all member states. In order to harmonise safety standards across the EU, rather than duplicate the efforts of the European states already involved in developing the IAEA standards, it would make more sense for the EC to simply adopt the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety and the Joint Convention on radioactive waste and spent fuel management.

The current EC energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, has also acknowledged the similarities between the IAEA conventions and the nuclear package – at least to a certain degree. In his recent communication with the UK’s House of Lords EU Sub-Committee D (Environment and Agriculture), which next month is due to report on its extensive inquiry into the nuclear package proposals, Piebalgs stated: “The nuclear package is to a large extent inspired by the Convention on Nuclear Safety (to which Euratom is a contracting party since 2000) and by the Joint Convention (to which Euratom has acceded in 2006). Many provisions of the nuclear package are modelled after the two conventions.” The subcommittee also asked him what the difference between the mechanism proposed by the EC and the current IAEA mechanism would be, to which Piebalgs referred to the means of enforcement that are possible under the Euratom Treaty.

Like de Palacio before him, Piebalgs is determined to get the nuclear package adopted. Towards the end of last year, he told the 2005 Eurosafe Forum: “The commission will continue to strive for adoption by the Council and the European Parliament of the two directives on nuclear safety and safe management of nuclear waste.”


The general consensus within the industry is that harmonisation of safety requirements is both necessary and desirable. Working towards that goal is the nuclear safety authorities association Wenra (Western European Nuclear Regulators’ Association), which held its first stakeholder meeting on the subject in February this year.


Developing separate European safety standards would lead to confusion in the nuclear industry and among the public and be a waste of resources

Wenra aims to develop a harmonised approach by developing what it refers to as common ‘reference levels’ in the fields of reactor safety, decommissioning safety, radioactive waste and spent fuel management in order to benchmark national practices. Wenra recognises the IAEA standards and uses them as a basis for its reference levels. Wenra aims to harmonise its members’ nuclear regulatory systems, using the reference levels as a minimum standard, by 2010.

Following the stakeholder meeting in February this year, Wenra said that the regulatory systems in Europe already fully comply with over half the reference levels. Moreover, 88% of the reactor safety reference levels have already been implemented on the plants. Wenra chairman and head of the Swedish nuclear regulator Judith Melin concluded: “With the voluntary harmonisation work carried out by the regulators of Europe, it is not necessary to wait for other initiatives to raise the level of nuclear safety in Europe. The work is already going on.”

From the industry’s point of view, the European Nuclear Installations Safety Standards Initiative (Eniss), which was launched within nuclear trade association Foratom a year ago, supports Wenra’s work. Werner Zaiss of Foratom and Eniss told NEI: “Clearly there is a common understanding of all members to meet all Wenra’s reference levels.”


But the EC believes that it can do better than the process of benchmarking that is being pursued by Wenra and the IAEA. In a panel debate on the harmonisation of safety standards at Foratom’s second European Nuclear Assembly (held in Brussels, Belgium on 28-29 March 2006) Christian Waeterloos, director of nuclear energy with the EC’s energy and transport directorate, said he believed the IAEA requirements “are a minimum basis on which we have to build in order to try to improve the level of safety,” and that the commission wanted Europe to lead the way in international nuclear safety.

Waeterloos explained that the IAEA requirements should merely be the basis on which all EU states should start. “But we should try to go a step further and ensure that we substitute each time it is possible good practices by the best practices implemented on the territory of the EU,” he said. Firstly, the EC wished to see the Wenra reference levels implemented for all nuclear plants, and reference levels for other fuel cycle installations developed. After that, “we should try to adopt a community framework in which national legislation would be contained or further developed.”

Waeterloos envisaged implementing a set of basic standards on nuclear installations safety during the course of 2007. He said there would probably need to be a new oversight authority, which would ensure that the regulations are implemented in each European member state.

One advantage of such a system would be to increase the level of trust between member states. “It is not a mystery to know that some community countries do not like nuclear activities conducted in the neighbouring countries. We should ensure that there is trust building between all community countries in the field of nuclear,” he said. In addition, Waeterloos maintained that such a system would provide a “similar fair guarantee” to all EU citizens. “They all know today that contamination is not contained within the borders of one country, so we have to ensure that all community citizens believe and trust what is done in the neighbouring countries. We will therefore need to identify transparent safety requirements which are understandable at least at the level of what we want to achieve.”

Harmonisation of safety in this way will also “create a yardstick” by which performance both within the EU and outside it can be evaluated, according to Waeterloos. If neighbouring countries want to export electricity to the EU, then those countries “should produce that electricity within the limits of the same safety guarantees.”

Waeterloos also argued that fair competition on the international or internal electricity markets can only be ensured through harmonisation, “because it would be unwise to use safety as a way to decide for an investment in one country or the other because the safety requirements would be cheaper to achieve.”

Of course, Waeterloos’ lines of argument rely on his belief that the average European state or member of the public would have more confidence in the commission than the IAEA to ensure nuclear safety. Secondly, he assumes the EC would be able to introduce standards that are higher than those of the IAEA. Needless to say, Christer Viktorsson, section head of the policy and programme support section in the IAEA’s division of nuclear installations safety, took issue with this point, claiming the IAEA’s recent safety standards do not represent “the minimum common denominator.” He pointed out that currently not all European countries are able to meet all the IAEA’s standards, “so it is a challenge already today.”

While the industry on the whole can agree that the process of harmonisation needs to continue, the controversy over the need for the nuclear package of directives has not abated. Now already five years into their gestation period and in spite of the tough talking from the European institutions, the nuclear package is set to run and run.

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