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Stress tests reveal safety shortcomings at most of Europe's nuclear reactors. Their upgrade could cost $32 billion.
BRUSSELS, Belgium — Anyone living near one of the European Union’s 132 working nuclear reactors may be feeling a little uneasy today.
Almost all the EU's nuclear power plants require safety improvements, according to the results of "stress tests" carried out after last year's Fukushima accident in Japan.
Experts put the cost of bringing the facilities up to scratch at between $13 and $32 billion.
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"There is no room for complacency," EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger said. "All authorities involved must work to ensure that the highest safety standards are in force in every single nuclear plant."
Oettinger added that the overall safety standard was "satisfactory" and insisted that none of the safety shortfalls were serious enough to warrant shutting down any of Europe's reactors.
Speaking in a news conference, he denied claims from anti-nuclear campaigners that industry lobbying had led the European Commission to tone down its report.
"The scope of these tests has been deeply reduced due to the pressure of the nuclear lobbies," said Yannick Jadot, a French Green Party member of the European Parliament. "The evaluation of scenarios and procedures was incomplete."
Thursday's report has intensified a debate on nuclear power in the European Union, where there are wide differences among the 27 member nations.
The German government announced it would shut down its plants in the aftermath of the radiation leaks at Fukushima. It has already closed eight of its 17 reactors.
France, by contrast, is committed to nuclear power. It draws 75 percent of its electricity from its 58 reactors.
National governments jealously guard control over their nuclear policy. Nevertheless, European leaders agreed at a summit last year to allow EU-wide safety checks on their plants in response to public concern sparked by the world's worst nuclear incident in decades, after Fukushima was hit by a earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
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However, they limited the scope of the stress tests to the impact of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, and the emergency backup systems in place to deal with resulting accidents. National governments refused to allow the EU inspectors to look into their preparedness for security threats from terrorists, cyber attacks or plane crashes.
"There are serious safety issues that the stress tests haven’t looked into," said Greenpeace Spokesman Mark Breddy. "EU governments must act fast by shutting down the oldest and most risky plants and by ordering more thorough testing on the remaining plants.”
Incidents over the past few months have added to public concern, including an operator error that led to the shutdown of a reactor at France's Fessenheim plant close to the German and Swiss borders; and the discovery of fissures that led to the closure in August of two reactors at Belgium's aging power plants.
Despite the danger it poses, many governments continue to see nuclear energy as a cheap, clean energy alternative that reduces dependence on oil and gas imports and enables cutting carbon emissions blamed for global warming.
The EU stress tests covered reactors in all 15 EU countries with nuclear powers, plus those in Switzerland and Ukraine. The report said hundreds of improvements are needed in all.
Inspectors found nuclear power plants in Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Sweden and Ukraine with no on-site seismic monitors to detect earthquakes. Two plants in Sweden and Finland could face dangerous heating of their nuclear core as little as 30 minutes after a power blackout, compared to up to 10 hours at other reactors, the report warned.
EU officials acknowledged they have no legal powers to oblige nations to implement the recommended safety improvements, but they expect peer pressure will lead all countries to comply
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The authorities in each country are expected to present plans for improving safety by the end of the year and EU inspectors are scheduled to report on their progress by June 2014.
The nuclear industry insisted it would do what's needed.
"The European nuclear industry has always been committed to continuously improving safety at its facilities and will deliver the improvements identified by the various national safety authorities," European Atomic Forum director Jean-Pol Poncelet said. "That commitment is, and will remain, non-negotiable."
He added in a statement that "it is standard practice for nuclear operators to meet the costs associated with safety improvements."
The European Commission is planning to come forward next year with proposals for new laws on nuclear liability and insurance that will include rules on compensation for victims of nuclear accidents.
Small comfort, perhaps, for the neighbors of Europe's nuclear plants.