The Nuclear Safety Framework in the European Union after Fukushima

Written by | Friday, February 27th, 2015

Franklin Dehousse and Didier Verhoeven (EGMONT – The Royal Institute for International Relations)

Back in the 1950s, nuclear plants were generally thought to have a great future. Nuclear energy suffered the first big blow following the Chernobyl catastrophe, which led to a major change in the approach to nuclear plants. Some 25 years later, the world saw was yet another major nuclear accident, this time in Fukushima, Japan. What impact did this unfortunate event have on the nuclear energy-related policies of the European Union and its Member States?

Even though the nuclear energy has already been in decline in many EU countries before 2011, it was the Fukushima accident that substantially contributed to Germany’s and Belgium’s decisions to abandon nuclear energy entirely, Italy’s decision to cancel the restart of its own nuclear energy program, and France’s decision to gradually decrease the share of nuclear energy in its overall electricity production. The trend to reduce the nuclear plants’ share of electricity supply will probably continue within the Union in the following years. This will happen not only because of the very fact that most of the nuclear reactors are 20 years and older and with only four new ones currently being built, but also because of the boom of renewable sources and the EU’s effort to reduce its energy dependency on Russia.

There is, however, a significant disagreement on nuclear energy among the individual EU Member States while the EU institutions are not entitled to interfere with the national energy policy and strategy. They can merely change the legal framework in order to safeguard public health, which must then be followed by the Member States if they decide to either build or operate a nuclear plant. The Fukushima accident has, however, raised doubts about the hitherto widely recognized assumption that the states’ efforts to ensure their own nuclear security are stronger than any form of international control.

Nevertheless, the EU directive of 2009, which enforced important restrictions, caused wide resentment and thus was replaced by a new directive in 2014, which dropped some of the substantial restrictions. The initial directive introduced common security standards and provided a legal framework for the foundation of a common security body which would associate inspectors with the right to control the implementation of these standards. The new directive, on the other hand, strengthens the security principles without implementing common standards, while seeking to ensure the increasing independence of national regulators and improve the control mechanisms.

(The study can be downloaded here)

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