The ten candidate countries joining the European Union in May face a daunting list of environmental requirements that must be met as stipulated in the bloc's membership criteria.
The Ignalina nuclear power plant in Lithuania.
When European nuclear experts visited the Ignalina power station in Lithuania in 1992, the state of the plant's two reactors was enough to shock the experienced team into declaring that if large scale modernization did not take place, then they would recommend that the power station should be shut down.
The control rooms of the reactors, which were of the same type as that at the ill-fated Chernobyl plant, had no special protection and were situated in the turbine buildings, the most accident-prone part of any nuclear power station. A fire or an explosion would render the control room inaccessible, the team reported, making any attempt to shut down the reactor impossible. Equally troubling, investigators found that fire doors were made of wood and that all emergency systems were housed in the one room, serviced by a single cable which, if destroyed, would render all safety operations useless. This included the pumps for the reactor's emergency cooling system.
It is therefore understandable why the European Union made the decommissioning of Ignalina one of its primary prerequisites for Lithuania's accession in 2004. Pressure from the EU and the need to comply with the bloc's stringent environmental rules forced the Lithuanian government to order the closure of one of the plant's reactors by 2005. The EU has issued a deadline for the complete decommissioning of Ignalina by 2009.
Undoing 40 years of neglect
Nuclear safety in the applicant countries is a major political issue and one of the greatest challenges being faced by those involved in the enlargement process along with cleaning up over 40 years of environmental neglect in the former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states.
The USSR's solution for disposing of high-level radioactive waste had been to simply pump most of it underground, polluting subterranean water sources. Combined with leaks and accidents which laid huge swathes of land to waste, many Soviet and Eastern Bloc states suffered from high levels of radioactive pollution.
But nuclear energy was far from the exclusive domain of such neglect – it also seeped over into virtually every other aspect of the environment. A report issued by the Polish independent trade union Solidarity in the mid-1980's did a pretty fair job of assessing the East's environmental problems. The report provided a laundry list of Poland's growing problems, illustrating how Eastern Bloc politicians often acted with brown rather than green thumbs.
"One-third of the country’s food is poisoned, one-fifth of the population is seriously endangered by air pollution, one third of Polish rivers are completely dead, the Baltic is dying, while 78 percent of lakes have levels of pollution that far exceed any acceptable standard."
Such a legacy puts the size of the task facing the new members into perspective. It also demonstrates the colossal progress the new member states have made in depolluting their lands.
300 laws for cleaner living
The environmental regulations that the accession countries must adhere to in order to meet the membership criteria of the EU amount to over 300 different laws that include standards for air, waste, water, industrial pollution control and risk management, nuclear safety and radiation protection.
The environmental dimension of the forthcoming enlargement presents greater challenges than in any previous accession. The task involves closing the gap in the level of environmental protection between Central and Eastern Europe and the rest of the EU while promoting economically and environmentally sustainable frameworks within the ten new member states so standards can be maintained once they have been reached.
European Union Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallström
Thus far, EU officials are pleased with the massive strides made by the accession states. At a press conference last week, the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Sweden's Margot Wallström (photo), lauded the incoming members for their efforts.
"All the new member states are for the most part on track ... they have had to make big efforts," she said. "From an environmental point of view, we are very happy."
Full compliance with the EU's environmental regulations is not just a huge logistical undertaking but has also required a massive financial investment. Estimates place the total cost of getting the ten candidate countries up to spec in the region of €100 - 120 billion. The bulk of the investment is likely to be needed for infrastructure in air pollution abatement, water and waste water management and waste management.
The candidate countries have already started to integrate the EU's environmental regulations into their own national legislation but some are continuing to have problems accommodating EU policy into their own on a legal level.
There are also problems concerning the reinforcing of a wide range of environmental institutions within the candidate countries, particularly the integration of existing regional and local environmental inspectorates into networks of non-governmental organizations across the bloc as stipulated within the EU legislation.
While none of the candidate countries have satisfied all of the EU environmental regulations at the present time, almost all are expected to have implemented a satisfactory level of the regulations by the time accession comes around on May 1, according to the European Commission.
In a report released last week, the Commission noted that key air pollutants in the new member states have declined by 60 to 80 percent. The presence of toxic metals, meanwhile, have fallen by 50 percent. And organic matter pollution in water has fallen as much as 80 percent.
But there are still areas that need improvement – especially in the areas of waste management, industrial pollution and conservation.
"The main problems have to do with the heavy pollution of the past, and the infrastructure. But they have been working very hard to address those problems," Wallström said.