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Anti-Nuclear groups question the safety of nuclear plant evaluations in European Union member states

Stress Tests testing the safety nuclear energy in the EU as well as some neighboring states have been the subject to a lot of debate over their safety and reliability.

by Cailie Skelton

In March of 2011, immediately after Fukushima, the European Commission called for voluntary stress tests on all of its 143 nuclear power plants in its member states. The tests were to be started before June 1, 2011.

The tests however, have received a lot of scrutiny from anti-nuclear groups, as well as members of the European Parliament for not being comprehensive enough, and also leaving too much room for error. Members of Parliament

The Civaux Nuclear Power Plant in France is an extremely modern plant.
The Civaux Nuclear Power Plant in France is an extremely modern plant.

against nuclear energy as well as other members of the EU also criticize the stress tests due to their inability to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants.

In a Plenary meeting on March 12, the President of Parliament Martin Schulz addressed the anniversary of Fukushima and supported the European Commission’s work on trying to make nuclear energy safer. He discussed the closeness of European countries and their reliance on each other for energy, and touched upon the necessity of nuclear safety, considering that nuclear energy currently creates 30 percent of energy across Europe.

“Unlike many who have discussed only after the tragedy, the European Parliament has acted. We welcome the efforts undertaken by the European Commission and by the experts in our own home last year to make nuclear energy safer,” said Schulz.

Are the stress tests accurate?

There was a lot of criticism about the Stress Tests lacking a control. The Energy Commission however has maintained the tests are are done in an even manner. In a speech last June, Commissioner Günther Oettinger guaranteed that the tests have remained accountable and were a fair assessment of the safety of the plants.

The tests will use a peer review method, which takes the reports from the individual plants and compares them to the specifications of the stress tests. Both officials from the member states as well as the Energy Commission are present at the time of the plant assessment to ensure that the tests are accurate and credible. Oettinger ensured that this approach is harmonized, and that the entire EU will follow a similar method when testing all nuclear plants.

“We are committed to implementing the highest safety standards in the EU and therefore our understanding is that assessments are to be made in a rigorous and timely manner, but without compromising the quality of the stress tests,” he said.

Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Jo Leinen is against the use of nuclear energy in the EU member states, and claims that the risk of nuclear energy is greater than any other energy generation in the past.

“The inherent risk of a commercial nuclear power station is there,” said Leinen. “But you cannot avoid the biggest nuclear accident would happen. As we have seen there is a combination of factors that we are not able to calculate. It’s a political choice if you want to keep that risk or get rid of that risk.”

Anti Nuclear members of parliament also debate that there is no 100 percent way to prove that a nuclear accident won’t happen.

Margrete Auken is an MEP from Denmark who also feels that there isn’t a way to secure nuclear safety.

“The only thing that is safe and secure about nuclear is that our grandchildren will hate us,” said Auken. “That’s the only thing you can say for sure.”

The Stress Tests in the EU

The stress tests are being overseen by the Energy Commission and are intended to be in addition to the member states own security measures to ensure the safety of their own nuclear plants.

The Commission, according to their website, has set up strict guidelines to test nuclear plants on their ability to withstand the pressure of one or more natural disasters including earthquakes, extreme weather changes, tornados, floods and storms. The plants must also prove that they have enough back up energy supply to withstand a power outage. The tests are also supposed to account for outside disasters occurring close to the nuclear plant which would put the plant at risk, such as nearby explosions.

Some groups however are still uneasy about the lack of an evaluation.

“There are reasons for taking terrorist attack as an important issue for nuclear power stations,” said the Greenpeace Nuclear Policy Advisor Jan Haverkamp, in an article on euractiv.com. “I am very concerned that this security group is not looking at the real issues.”

However ways to prevent certain terrorist attacks from affecting plants aren’t covered in these tests due to these tests being a national security issue, and needing a separate committee of experts. Several member states also expressed concern over such testing claiming that tests for safety against terrorism would include having to give up confidential information, according to Oettinger in a plenary meeting last June.

While the Energy Commission claims that the tests were safe and comprehensive, anti-nuclear groups still have doubts about the tests ability to evaluate each plant the same when there was no one aspect of the test that was the same.

Results of the Stress Tests

Although the final reports of the stress tests will not be released in full until June 2012, some preliminary information has been released, which has people concerned, especially about the reliability of older plants.

Although the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), Yukiya Amano told Reuters that nuclear energy is safer than it was a year ago, there is also still concern over aging nuclear plants. According a report released by the IAEA, 80 percent of the worlds nuclear reactors were built over 20 years ago. These aging facilities cause concern with the IAEA over their safety, and if running old reactors could fulfill safety regulations.

Auken sees these debates on nuclear energy as a good time to begin the switch to other sources of energy such as efficiency, energy saving and renewables.

“You have to start one day,” said Auken, who insists that you can’t wait to find new energy supplies until it’s time to close the plant down.

“You should always use a crisis to find new ways,” added Auken. “It’s more inviting, people are more entitled to do something when you have a crisis than when you’re just continuing while it works.”

In June, when final reports are released, if a plant does not meet the requirements of the stress tests, the country can either decide to fix the plant or phase it out.