At a joint conference organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Commission on Monday, EU officials, EESC members and stakeholders grappled with challenging issues relating to nuclear safety.
The event took place in the wake of the publication by the European Commission of the interim report on stress tests on nuclear power plants in the EU. It concluded that lack of information and participation by the public could affect the overall credibility of the exercise unless greater efforts were made.
“Nuclear safety is an area where public opinion mobilises quickly and has a massive impact on decision-makers”, said Staffan Nilsson, EESC President, in his opening address. “The nuclear debate is one where participatory democracy must be employed and can fully prove its worth”, he added. Addressing a fundamental conflict between technocracy and participatory democracy, he said that decision makers had an obligation to tackle all citizens’ fears and concerns, no matter how unfounded they might seem.
Some of the participants spared no criticism regarding the initial results of the stress tests on 143 EU nuclear plants, recently published by the European Commission. European regulators needed to learn from the over-reliance on ‘probability risk assessment’ at Fukushima – the improbable can, and does, happen. Jan Haverkamp of Greenpeace pointed out that the tests did not address disaster emergency procedures. Given that a number of nuclear reactors are in or not far from densely populated areas, this was a fundamental shortcoming, he said. He also deplored the lack of the independence of some of the national regulators from both public authorities and plant operators and the variation and inconsistency between national reports.
The lively debate, of prime public interest, was followed and assessed by a citizens’ panel comprising people from EU countries that use nuclear energy, countries that do not and countries that are about to join “the nuclear club”. In their conclusions they said that citizens must not be left out of the nuclear debate. Credible, reliable and straightforward information would allow them to make informed choices about Europe’s future energy mix.
Conference moderator and EESC member, Richard Adams (United Kingdom, Various Interests’ Group), who also chairs the Transparency Working Group of the European Nuclear Energy Forum, said that more and better public debate was needed. “Nuclear may play a part in the long term energy mix of Europe but the extent to which it does could depend on public understanding of the risks and confidence that they have been offered credible energy options for their own country.” He added that the EESC intended to play an active part in ensuring that the public voice was heard and public understanding enhanced.