The European Commission is happy with the progress of stress tests so far, it said in an interim report to the European Council and Parliament, while it has begun to think about recommendations for a “new European nuclear safety architecture.”
“Well on track” is how the commission described today the status of the stress test program, for which all 14 EU states that use nuclear power have submitted summaries. Final versions of the reports are to be submitted by the end of the year, at which point a peer-review process will be carried out by expert groups of regulators drawn from across Europe. The entire process should be complete by the end of 2012.
Non-EU states Switzerland and Ukraine are participating fully in the EU program to the same schedule, while there is cooperation with Armenia, Belarus, Croatia, Russia, and Turkey who share the ultimate end-of-2012 deadline. All other major nuclear power nations have similar programs, while smaller countries collaborate in a worldwide safety check.
The European Commission said it was “already now drawing the first lessons from the tests” including that “there is no consistency in the handling of safety margins across nuclear power plants in Europe” and there are “no common safety standards or criteria for nuclear power plants in the EU.”
“One of the key lessons learnt from the Fukushima accident is that the effective independence of the national regulatory authorities must be ensured,” said the commission.
It noted that in some countries regulatory authority was split between different of agencies or government departments. Regulatory power should be “given to a single independent authority”, it said, which could be required by EU law to meet certain levels of competency and transparency.
International peer reviews of national regulatory frameworks were recognised, but the commission may recommend broadening these “to include design safety and operational safety of nuclear power plants.”
“A range of actors should be involved in finalising the set of recommendations for the new European nuclear safety architecture, including the national regulators, the nuclear industry as well as the scientific and technical community,” said the commission. Reductions in the number of standards and regulatory approaches could stand to benefit the heavily regulated commercial nuclear industry that provides one third of the EU’s electricity. A working group of the World Nuclear Association known as CORDEL (Cooperation in Reactor Design Evaluation and Licensing) has been compaigning for the harmonisation of safety regulations internationally and for making standardisation of reactor designs possible.
Another aspect that could see attention is the development of nuclear risk management plans in case of an accident with implications in more than one EU state, or indeed a neighbouring state. This fits with an ongoing EU program of disaster response that will see a “European Emergency Response Capacity” in the form of a “fully functional 24/7 Emergency Response Centre” and a set of contingency plans for a range of disasters, including those with nuclear dimensions.
Lastly, the commission would like to address the “crucial” area of liability in case of a nuclear accident. It noted that a “patchwork” of legislation existed across the continent with states signed up to different versions of the Paris Convention, the Brussels Supplementary Convention and the Vienna Convention – and in various combinations. The commission said it wanted to “improve victim’s compensation in the EU, regardless of their country of residence” and reduce any potential for legal differences to distort EU-wide markets.
The European Commission will issue its final report on the stress tests and associated recommendations at the end of June 2012.
Designed to “reassess whether nuclear power plants can withstand the effects of natural disasters, human failures or malevolent acts” the paper-based stress tests subject nuclear power plants to theoretical emergencies combining the most extreme events they may ever realistically face with the loss of all safety systems, one by one. One intention is to identify ‘cliff-edge’ effects beyond which a serious nuclear accident becomes inevitable.
The tests were inspired by the sheer scale of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami this year, which triggered an emergency by flooding the Fukushima Daiichi plant to a depth of several metres, disabling the power grid and seriously hampering emergency management with widespread destruction on an unprecedented scale. Within five days, four of the power plant’s six reactor units had been destroyed and a significant amount of radioactivity released. Some 100,000 people cannot return home until a major decontamination effort is complete.