Interview with Günther Oettinger: 'No Compromises When it Comes to Security'

Resolve for strict stress tests on European Union nuclear plants is dwindling. But in an interview with SPIEGEL, European Commissioner for Energy Günther Oettinger says he will not sign on to a watered-down version of the plan.

Europe is divided over how stressful its stress tests should be. Zoom
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Europe is divided over how stressful its stress tests should be.

Last week news broke that powerful European Union member states were pushing for more lenient stress tests on their nuclear energy facilities than they initially agreed to in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster. The original plans made by the 27 member states in late March included the evaluation of threats from both natural and man-made causes to prevent a similar incident from happening in Europe.

But media reports said that final plans would require only inspections for natural disasters after nuclear regulators from western EU states refused to evaluate the dangers posed by terrorist attacks and other man-made emergencies. They also said they would deny plant access to independent nuclear experts.

Behind the push for watered-down stress tests are France and Britain, who run more nuclear plants than other EU members. Both have said they plan to use more atomic energy in the future despite the Fukushima disaster, and British officials said they would not publish results of the stress tests.

While European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, 57, said last week that "the question is open" as to whether all member states would agree to tough stress tests in a final agreement, he has since hardened his stance, telling SPIEGEL that there would be no compromises.


SPIEGEL: After the nuclear disaster a Fukushima you announced strict stress tests on the European Union's 143 atomic energy plants. Did you promise too much?

Oettinger: The western European nuclear inspection authorities have presented a concept for the stress tests. There, the questions about natural disasters have been answered satisfactorily. However I do not agree that the assessment of man-made catastrophes should only be voluntary.

SPIEGEL: This is about terrorist attacks, plane crashes and operational errors. It is mainly the biggest users of atomic energy in the EU, such as the UK and France, who are fighting mandatory tests on these dangers.

Oettinger: The heads of state and government decided at their last summit that the test should be "comprehensive." They must stick to that pledge. Besides, it's difficult to make a clear distinction between man-made and natural disasters.

SPIEGEL: Not much remains of your idea to employ multi-national commissions with the stress tests.

Oettinger: A three-step procedure has been planned. First the energy companies will conduct internal inspections. In the second phase we'll use the expert knowledge of the national inspection authorities. Finally international teams will examine the national results. The tests will only be credible if representatives from countries that are skeptical of nuclear energy also take part.

SPIEGEL: How do you plan to bring the reluctant countries to their senses?

Oettinger: When it comes to security there can be no compromises. There will be no stress test "light" at the European Commission. I won't put my signature on a stress test that does not satisfy my expectations and those of the wider public.

SPIEGEL: Will all results be published?

Oettinger: For me a high-level of transparency is the basis for achieving maximum acceptance among citizens. But there can be limits. It can also put security at risk to publish sensitive data that would aid terrorists in planning attacks. But fundamentally I am in favor of publishing the results of the different phases.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schult

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About Günther Oettinger
Ezequiel Scagnetti / Fotogloria / DER SPIEGEL
Günther Oettinger has been the European Commissioner for Energy in Brussels since February 2011. He is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union and was the governor of the economically prosperous southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg prior to his European Union appointment. Both he and his party were advocates of nuclear power prior to the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

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