Resistance from Regulators Nuclear Stress Tests May Be Watered Down

In the wake of Fukushima, EU officials pledged to create stress tests for nuclear power plants that would evaluate the threat posed by natural disasters, terrorism, cyberwar and human error. Now a major German newspaper is reporting that regulators are unwilling to accept stricter scrutiny and the plans are likely to get watered down.

The Marcoule nuclear power plant in Chusclan, France: The governments in London and Paris are said to be resisting moves to introduce terror and cyber attack stress tests on atomic energy sites.

The Marcoule nuclear power plant in Chusclan, France: The governments in London and Paris are said to be resisting moves to introduce terror and cyber attack stress tests on atomic energy sites.

After Japan's nuclear disaster at Fukushima, the European Union announced with great fanfare that it would introduce stress tests for Europe's nuclear power plants to help ensure that a similar catastrophe could not happpen here. It appears, however, that the final plans will be far less ambitious that originally envisioned.

Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper is reporting that the Western European Nuclear Regulators' Association has completed its proposal for the tests. Under the final plan, however, the plants would only be required to undergo stress test inspections for dangers presented by natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis or extreme fluctuations in weather.

At the end of March, leaders of the 27 EU member states agreed at a summit that inspection measures at the 146 nuclear plants within the bloc would be stepped up to include additional accident scenarios. Additional tests would be conducted to consider electricity supplies like those that failed at Fukushima, cooling systems and additional aspects like terrorist attacks, human error or the plants' ability to function safely during unexpected emergency situations. In an interview with SPIEGEL in April, European Union Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger of Germany said: "We will also run simulations of a terrorist attack with an airplane and a cyber attack on the computer system."

'The Question Is Open'

But Western European nuclear regulators are now staunchly rejecting those calls, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in its Wednesday edition. The regulators reportedly stated in an internal paper that they would only agree to conduct stress tests involving natural disaster scenarios -- and not terrorist strikes or other manmade situations. Instead, they would agree to compose reports on potential threats that would be submitted to the European Commission in Brussels. Neither would independent nuclear experts be given access to the plants under the plan.

European energy ministers discussed the issue during an informal meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday in Gödöllö, Hungary. At the end of the meeting, Hungary, which currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, issued a statement saying that the stress tests would begin in June.

In its report, the Süddeutsche Zeitung cited sources indicating that the ministers appear likely to agree to the regulators' plan, and that the nuclear plants would only be tested for possible natural disasters. Countries that want more stringent tests could do so voluntarily, the newspaper quoted a source close to Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger as saying. On Tuesday, Oettinger said publicly that "the question is open" as to whether stricter stress test measures would be included, admitting there were differences between the 27 member states.

European Commission sources told the newspaper that France and Britain have led the efforts to oppose more stringent stress tests. With France's 59 plants and Britain's 19, the two operate the largest number of nuclear power plants of any countries in Europe. Government officials in Paris and London have already stated that they plan to rely more heavily on nuclear power in the future despite the Fukushima disaster. Officials in London also stated they would not publish the results of the stress tests, which are expected to be completed by December.

The European Commission still feels that even the watered-down plan is better than the status quo. Even under the more limited plan, officials in Brussels will still get access for the first time to construction plans for plants and they would also be provided with a much better general overview of all European atomic power facilities. EU member states will also be required to disclose the conditions stipulated during the permit approval process for construction and operation. Officials described the development as "major progress." After a few more rounds of consultations, a final plan is expected to be introduced on May 12 in Brussels.

Speaking on Tuesday, International Energy Agency Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka told reporters that some older nuclear power plants in the EU may be forced to close earlier than planned as a result of the stress tests.

Efforts to water down plans for more stringent stress tests have sparked criticism in Germany. "We need to test all disaster scenarios, regardless whether they are caused by man or nature," Angelika Niebler, a German member of the European Parliament with Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union party, told the Süddeutsche. Rebecca Harms, who chairs the party group in the European Parliament for the Greens, spoke of a "dangerous lowering" of expectations in the plans. She said Energy Commissioner Oettinger had broken his pledge to make European nuclear power plants as safe as possible and to develop new, uniform standards.

Concerns about Energy Costs

At the same time, a fresh debate has broken out in Germany over higher prices for electricity in the country. After Fukushima, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed her government's decision, taken last year, to delay the nuclear phase-out -- which was passed by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in his government with the Greens -- and extend plant lifespans. In March, Merkel shut down Germany's oldest plants and placed a three-month moratorium on the lifespan extensions.

Now German companies from energy-intensive industrial sectors have rung the alarm bell, warning that energy prices could soon skyrocket.

"We already have the highest electricity prices in Europe," Kurt Bock, who will become CEO of chemical maker BASF on Friday, told reporters this week. "Our demand is very clear: We need affordable energy prices in Germany." He also said that energy supply must be guaranteed, without any shortfalls, 24 hours a day. Bock questioned whether it would be possible to ensure supplies and meet climate protection targets for reducing CO2 emissions. "I don't see any way that we can reconcile these two points with an expedited phase-out" of nuclear power, he said.

However, the question of whether a nuclear withdrawal will automatically lead to an increase in prices is disputed. "We can phase out nuclear energy faster without having an irresponsible rise in energy prices," former United Nations environment chief Klaus Töpfer, who is heading Germany's so-called "Ethics Commission" to study the future of nuclear power, told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper. He said it would also be possible to do so without putting jobs at risk.

With his statements, Töpfer distanced himself from Johannes Teyssen, who heads the major German power utility E.on. The executive, whose company operates nuclear power plants, had recently warned that Germany would only be able to phase out nuclear energy by importing atomic power and fossil fuel-generated electricity from other countries.

Töpfer said: "The fact that the head of a very large company that operate nuclear power plants is representing a position like that isn't surprising. But I don't think it is true."

dsl -- with wires


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