Welcome to the union13 July 2004
As the European Union expands, so too does the number of Russian-desogned reactors within the EU. How is accession to the EU affecting those countries with a nuclear power industry? By Alan Osborn
Seen in the context of the past decade, the entry of 10 new member states to the European Union (EU), which took place on 1 May, has proved nothing like the disaster for the nuclear industry that was once feared. This is partly because the problems presented by the incoming countries through their reliance on Russian-designed reactors with major safety defects were identified and acted upon as far back as 1992. A number of ambitious and broad-ranging programmes have been adopted in the past decade either to upgrade the plants to acceptable international safety levels or to agree on dates for their closure.
There remain a number of unsolved problems – principally perhaps the extent to which the new member countries will be able to exploit Euratom loans in order to comply with EU nuclear safety legislation – and none of these countries has felt it necessary to forswear the use of nuclear energy in either the medium or long term. Some of the new members, such as the Czech Republic, may even be able to exploit the EU’s energy liberalisation directives to expand their exports of energy to other EU states, though in general the newcomers, according to some experts, will probably want to avoid giving the impression they have surplus energy lest this invite closer scrutiny of their nuclear reactors.
MORE EU REACTORS
Of the 10 states that joined the EU this month, five have nuclear power capacity: the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Lithuania – together operating a total of 19 largely Russian-designed reactors. The share of nuclear power in the total energy mix is high, notes the German Atomic Forum, reflecting the relative absence of indigenous energy resources: 80.1% in Lithuania, 54.7% in the Slovak Republic, 40.7% in Slovenia, 36.1% in Hungary, and 24.5% in the Czech Republic.
Slovenia's Krsko nuclear plant, designed by Westinghouse, is the only one of the 19 reactors to join the EU on 1 May that is not Russian-designed
In pre-accession negotiations the European Commission (EC) considered each reactor in terms of its safety and its position in the national economy and ordered a number of permanent closures. It insisted, for example, that both units of Lithuania’s only nuclear power plant at Ignalina be closed down in 2005 and 2009 respectively, though given the country’s huge reliance on nuclear power there are on-going discussions on whether some extension may be possible. A new nuclear power plant is being planned as a replacement. In the Slovak Republic two reactors are to be shut down at the EC’s orders in 2006 and 2009, though the country has four other reactors in operation and is planning the construction of two more.
Improvements – not closures – however, have been the standard work in progress. As far back as 2001, a report from the EU Council’s Working Party on Nuclear Safety (WPNS) reported to the EU’s Joint Research Centre on “the considerable safety improvements that candidate states have implemented to date.” The WPNS said “these ongoing and currently planned safety improvement programmes in (new member) candidate states and their timely completion under due regulatory supervision are one of the most essential elements with regard to achieving a high level of nuclear safety.”
Within this assessment it set a number of specific forward looking goals – for instance calling on the Czech Republic to ensure that the safety case demonstrating appropriate protection against high energy pipe breaks, and consequential failures of the steam and feedwater lines – “complies with requirements and practices widely applied within the EU and that an appropriate combination of measures are in place.”
Among other things, it said Hungary should complete strengthening the independence of the regulatory body (HAEA) “in relation to persons, bodies or organisations that are related to promotion of nuclear energy or operation of nuclear facilities.” Lithuania should “develop and implement an action plan to ensure that the regulatory body (VATESI) has adequate resources to carry out all its duties and responsibilities, and resources to obtain the necessary independent technical support.”
It called on Slovenia to “complete the on-going revision of the 1984 act on radiation protection and the safe use of nuclear energy in order to make it more clear, in compliance with widely applied EU practice.” The Slovak Republic should, as a short-term priority for operational safety at both Bohunice V1 reactors “develop and implement an action plan, including measures to ensure staff motivation, with a view to ensuring high operational safety for the remaining operating time.”
In an interim report issued last June the working group reported that all priority short-term requests had been fulfilled. Pierre Frigola, head of coordination of nuclear activities in the JRC, told NEI: “Most of the work here has already been done.”
Elsewhere Eduardo González Gómez, president of the Brussels-based European Atomic Forum (Foratom), said that by 2007 – in other words after the second phase of EU enlargement (also including Bulgaria and Romania) – 15 of the possibly 27 member states will have nuclear power “so now and at each stage of enlargement, there will be a slight majority of EU countries using nuclear.” He continued: “However, Europe’s nuclear sector is not just about power generation. Virtually all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle are undertaken – from uranium enrichment to fuel manufacture and spent fuel reprocessing. The sector supports an estimated 400,000 jobs.”
Gómez said he was convinced that in the decade beginning 2010 “it will be necessary for Europe to increase its production of nuclear electricity in order to maintain power supplies that are secure, affordable and low in carbon content.” The German Atomic Forum follows his line, saying that following EU enlargement, “nuclear power will continue to be one of the most important electricity sources within the EU.” It noted that in the EU of 15 the share of nuclear power in total electricity generation was around 35% in 2003.
In this context, the role of Euratom is crucial to the new EU member countries, and views about its future are fiercely divided. The Euratom Treaty was created to support nuclear power in the EU by providing loans for the construction of nuclear power plants in the EU, in accession countries and in the former Soviet Union. The Euratom nuclear loan facility is now virtually exhausted and the European Commission has proposed extending the loan ceiling by €2 billion and making other changes to loan activity.
Under the treaty this has to be approved by all member states but the EU council has not yet acted. “There is no hurry as no money is needed at this stage and there are no plans for any loans inside the EU at present,” said Gerassimo Thomas, Euratom spokesman. “The relationship has changed,” he told NEI, and “this kind of lending is now only for countries outside the EU.”
No Euratom loans to promote the development of nuclear power have been made to existing EU member countries since 1987 and all were repaid by 2000. The emphasis in recent years has been on using the loans to ensure that power reactor units in central and eastern Europe are upgraded or completed to a level that matches Western safety standards.
The last such project to be approved under the Euratom Treaty, announced in April, was to help finance completion of the Cernavoda 2 power reactor unit in Romania with a loan of €223.5 million to the Romanian National Nuclear Power Company to ensure that the plant will meet internationally accepted safety standards. Prior to that a loan of €212.5 million was made to Bulgaria in 1999 for modernisation of the two units at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, and in 2000 a loan of €688.24 million was made to the Ukraine to help completion of two reactor units at the Rovno and Khmelnitski plants.
Under its Agenda 2000 proposals, the European Commission said it wanted not only the closure of first generation high risk reactors but an increase in nuclear safety for the subsequently developed second generation reactors – the VVER 440/213 and VVER 1000 – to bring them in line with international or western safety standards. The cost was put at around €4-5 billion, to be implemented over the next seven to 10 years, and this lay behind the call for an extension of the Euratom loan facility, together with the possibility of finance from new sources.
The significant changes already seen in the role of Euratom, coupled with the growth of the anti-nuclear movement in a number of EU countries, have nevertheless led to calls for the organisation to be wound up. A coalition of about 100 NGOs assembled by Friends of the Earth (FoE) has called for abolition. “Euratom blurs regulation with promotion and if Europe is to have the proper legal framework for its nuclear industry in the future this contradiction must be resolved,” said Mark Johnston, Europe nuclear campaigner for FoE.
What is clear is that there is growing pressure for a major reform of Euratom, which was conceived 50 years ago under strikingly different energy conditions from those of today. Seven of the pre-enlargement 15 EU member states have now backed a proposal by the Austrian government for a new conference to be held, in the context of the pending new constitutional treaty for the EU, to review Euratom.
Ireland’s minister for Europe Dick Roche has said the Euratom treaty “makes little or no specific mention of aspects of great concern to our citizens, such as the operational safety of nuclear power plants and radioactive waste storage or disposal facilities.”
Austria’s call for a full review was ‘very sensible,’ according to Roche. However the Irish government, the current president of the EU, said it had accepted a working document from the constitution convention, which said there was neither the time nor the mandate for this.
A special conference to consider revising the Euratom treaty therefore seems unlikely until the new constitution has been agreed and ratified. There are suggestions of a compromise here between the two main players – France with its devotion to nuclear power and Germany, which has said it will close down all its reactors by 2020. For the time being Euratom looks like continuing independently of the EU (though with the same institutions and membership) though it may face irresistible demand for change within the next few years.
There are still important decisions to be made over the timing of nuclear plant closures in the new EU member countries but where agreement can be reached, or there is no need for one, the underlying competitiveness of the nuclear industry in these countries is likely to yield enhanced export markets for them. The main factors may be whether the nuclear industry generally in the enlarged EU can exploit its advantages in the areas of running costs and security of supply over the opposition of the environmental lobby and what, if anything, is done about Euratom.