Column: Stress over stress tests

Sami Tulonen, Aula Europe

One of the immediate consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident was the ignition of a broad debate on the safety of nuclear reactors in Europe. The European Commission’s own re-assessment of safety has been operationalised in the form of the so-called ‘stress tests’ that have now commenced at all of Europe’s nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power plant operators will produce reports that are to be submitted to national regulators (in Finland’s case STUK), their partner organisations, and the Commission for review. The process is well underway, having officially started on June 1.

Stress tests were, overall, seen as a good initiative right from the outset. As early as the end of March a working group of WENRA presented the Commission with an initial set of safety criteria. A 13-page report outlining the safety features to be evaluated was published by the group in April. This was well-received by the Commission and it seemed that officials from the Commission and ENSREG mandated with overseeing the tests would use WENRA’s report as the basis for the tests.

However, Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger was not entirely satisfied with WENRA’s proposals. Whereas WENRA’s proposed criteria consisted of safety shocks triggered by natural events, Oettinger favoured expanding the scope of the criteria to also include man-made triggering events – namely, terrorism. Many officials from supervisory agencies felt this would be difficult to implement.

Terrorism is a security threat at the societal level not specific to one sector. Moreover, national safety regulators do not have the authority or know-how to deal with phenomena such as terrorism which is strictly a competence for national security organisations. With this mind, the Energy Commissioner tempered his stance. At the June 10 Energy Council Oettinger had effectively renounced his initial call for including terrorism in the scope of the tests.

The issue of stress tests has cast a spotlight on the relationship between the EU and national authorities in the field of nuclear power regulation. Over the years the Commission has sought to strengthen its role in regulating the sector which has proved problematic due to Member State misgivings. It is clear that the Commission can increase its presence in the field of nuclear safety but this hinges on good cooperation with national authorities – acknowledging their independence.

Nuclear safety, today and in the future, will be ensured by effective independent regulatory authorities working closely with responsible operators. The Commission has a key role to play in the nuclear sector – complementing the responsibilities and independence of safety authorities.

Sami Tulonen
Aula Europe