Battle lines drawn in war of perceptions over nuclear safety

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details Vol.7, No.34, 20.9.01, p15
Publication Date 20/09/2001
Content Type

Date: 20/09/01

By Maria Kielmas

A claim to save the planet may have become one of today's best sales pitches, but for Europe's nuclear energy industry it comes with a sting in the tail. Just before July's climate conference in Bonn some 99 top executives from the nuclear industry signed an open letter to governments calling on parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to acknowledge nuclear as an acceptable energy and environmental resource that successfully avoids greenhouse gas emissions. They failed. "We are very disappointed," said Wolf Schmidt-Küster, secretary-general of Foratom, a Brussels based organisation which represents Europe's nuclear industries in EU institutions. "But it does not prevent nuclear power from being used. That is the autonomous decision of governments."

National autonomy over nuclear energy is complicating EU accession talks with candidate countries in central and eastern Europe, resulting in what European Commission officials describe as "a very sensitive issue". The 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident first alerted the public to the potential dangers of nuclear energy. But it was not until the 1986 Chernobyl incident that the industry was forced to confront two pressing issues: what to do with Soviet-designed reactors which were deemed unsafe; and how to strengthen civil liability regimes and consider international liability. Security at power plants and energy installations worldwide was increased after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Containment vessels, which protect the reactor at nuclear power plants, are designed to withstand the accidental impact of an average-sized commercial aircraft but not a wide-bodied jet with full fuel tanks, said a spokesman at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA).

In 1999, when the EU invited a number of countries to apply for membership, three - Bulgaria, Slovakia and Lithuania - offered to shut down some of their Soviet-designed reactors which could not be upgraded to meet EU safety standards. At Three Mile Island containment worked, but at Chernobyl radioactivity was released.

But where will replacement electricity be generated? In Bulgaria the Kozloduy nuclear plant yields 47% of the national electricity consumption; in Slovakia reactors at Bohunice provide 47% for the country and in Lithuania the Ignalina plant provides 73%. Schmidt-Küster believes a modern nuclear plant could be built on the Ignalina site.

However, Eugenijus Uspuras, head of the nuclear safety installation laboratory at the Lithuanian Energy Institute in Kaunas, thinks a gas-fired plant would be cheaper and more flexible. But the ultimate closure date should depend on a thorough examination of social and financial issues, not just safety, he argues.

The Czech Republic's Temelin reactor, which began test operations last year, was intended to replace pollution-producing brown coal-fired power plants. Their closure involves the loss of 5,000 mining jobs and is the main source of opposition to Temelin in the Czech republic.

In neighbouring Austria, Temelin has generated a fierce national debate. Vienna halted nuclear power development in a 1978 referendum and in 1999 passed a law with extra-jurisdictional nuclear liability. This is contrary to international conventions, which limit liability to where the accident occurs, not the damage.

Following the intervention by Enlargement Commissioner Günther Verheugen, the Austrian government toned down anti-Temelin rhetoric. Austrian environmentalist groups such as Global 2000 are pushing for a law to stop any EU electricity company with nuclear interests from doing business in the country. Global 2000 spokeswoman Andrea Poukovits acknowledges that this could be contrary to Union law and that the group is seeking legal advice. They hope for support from the German government.

German environment minister Jürgen Trittin and foreign minister Joschka Fischer called on Prague to close down Temelin prompting the Czech deputy prime minister Vladimir Spidla to refute the call saying his is a "civilised country".

Now the dispute is commercial. German utility E.on announced in May that it is negotiating to end its power purchase contract with Temelin. The company gave no reason but in July signed an agreement with Austria's Verbund Gesellschalft to form Europe's third-largest hydro-power company. Temelin's operator, the Czech utility CEZ, continues negotiations with E.on but is unsure of a replacement client, a spokesman in Prague confirmed.

The future now depends on which company or consortium buys the 64% stake in CEZ which the Czech government put on sale in August. Aspiring bidders include a grouping of E.on, British Energy, a nuclear operator already advising the Czech government on Temelin, and the UK's International Power. AES Corp of the US and Electricité de France (EdF) are also said to be interested.

In May Germany announced a plan to phase out nuclear power over the next 20 years. Nuclear provides 30% of Germany's electricity demand. Siemens called the agreement a basis for negotiations, while E.on executives noted it could be reversed and Schmidt-Küster thinks it is merely gesture politics - 22 years after Sweden voted to close nuclear plants only one reactor has been shut and no real alternative energy found. Atomic energy is on the upswing even in Europe, Schmidt-Küster claims. Britain's upcoming energy review will include a study of nuclear while Finland has commissioned Europe's first high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Olkiluto.

The facility will be drilled 500 metres deep into granite, occupy a space of one square kilometre and cost one billion euros. It has gained a "political acceptance for the project" and is supported by local communities, says Anne Väätäinen, nuclear safety official at Finland's trade and industry ministry.

A nuclear shut-down has not been stipulated as a condition for EU membership, stresses Andeas Herdina, head of the task force on nuclear issues at DG Enlargement. The Czech Republic's Temelin plant is not included in those scheduled for shutdown and the original Soviet design has been modified by US company Westinghouse. According to the Western European Nuclear Regulators' Association (Wenra), the improvements are the most comprehensive applied to any Soviet-type reactor.

Of the 15 EU member countries, eight operate nuclear reactors. Of the enlargement candidates negotiating, seven operate nuclear plants. "The problem is that a number of states - in particular France and Britain - have always insisted that nuclear safety is a national prerogative. On the other hand we have to take a common position on entry," said Herdina.

There is no common acquis in nuclear safety. Nevertheless, to close the energy chapter on any candidate's entry requires the consent of all 15 member states. These complications have generated what Herdina terms "a war of perceptions," on nuclear energy.

Article forms part of a special report on energy.

Subject Categories