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Stress tests criticized

June 17, 2012

Would European nuclear plants withstand a natural disaster or a catastrophic chain of events? These are some questions that nuclear stress tests are supposed to answer.

Cattenom nuclear plant in France
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The nuclear power plant in Fukushima was supposed to withstand an earthquake, and the danger of a tsunami was also considered during construction. But the quake on March 11, 2011, was stronger than ever before, and the giant wave that struck taller than the protective walls. The rest is history - the damage caused the reactors to melt down.

The tsunami hits Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself possessing a doctorate in quantum physics, quickly reacted to the consequences of the disaster. That June, the administration made a decision to do what it had long discussed: phase out nuclear energy. Eight older nuclear power plants were immediately taken offline, while the remaining ones should follow by 2022.

But in other countries, governments continue to support atomic energy. And since radiation doesn't recognize international borders, this turns out to be not merely a national question.

The European Union also responded immediately to the Fukushima disaster. Stress tests for European nuclear plants were supposed to clarify how well the reactors could withstand external threats such as earthquakes or floods.

The European Safety Regulators Group carried out the tests in a three-step process. First, the nuclear plant operators themselves had to answer a catalog of questions regarding the safety of their facilities. Then, the national nuclear authorities collected and checked their statements. Finally, teams of international experts audited the plausibility of the results one more time in a peer review.

Smoke billowing reactor at Fukushima
Meltdown of the reactors in Fukushima affected Europe's nuclear policyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Criticism and calls for action

A lot of effort for little substance - this is Greenpeace's main criticism of the European stress tests. The environmental group has compiled its own second opinion in which it points out the weaknesses of the official version.

The results of the regulators' group report are of highly varying quality, criticizes Greenpeace staffer and nuclear physicist Heinz Smital. "Some things were simply claimed by the operators, while other statements are quite well attested because they were deeply investigated during the approval process," Smital told DW.

The stress tests also disregard many risk factors from the start, such as the effects of aging on the reactors, many of which have been in operation for decades, Smital added.

The EU stress test was supposed to clarify, in light of what happened in Fukushima, whether the reactors will remain under control if several problems emerge at once. But in a report issued in April, Smital said, that doesn't appear to be the case.

"There's always a criterion left out, but then the assumption continues to be that the rest of the facility is fully intact and will continue to function exactly as planned," Smital said. However, he thinks this is unrealistic.

In the Greenpeace report, the situation in European nuclear plants is far worse than in the EU stress tests. About 50 facilities would have to be shut down, according to Smital. There's also need for action in Germany, he added. At the Grundremmingen facility, Greenpeace criticized the failure to cover pools where highly radioactive material is stored.

Results in the autumn

Anti-nuclear demonstrators hold flag at Brokdorf plant
Events in Japan tipped the scales on an already contentious nuclear program in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Political decisions on the subject won't be taken until the fall at the earliest, since Günther Oettinger - the EU commissioner on energy - also isn't completely satisfied with the European Safety Regulators Group's report.

At the meeting of ministers in charge of the effort this past Friday in Luxembourg, the report was on the agenda, but only as a preliminary version. Over the upcoming months, Oettinger plans to supplement the report, said his spokesperson Marlene Holzner.

"The last phase, involving international teams examining the plants in different countries, occurred over a relatively short time span," Holzner said. Not every single nuclear plant, but at least many different sorts of European nuclear plants, must be examined for the final report, the commissioner charged.

There's one more point that Oettinger finds crucial in the stress tests, Holzner said. "The people want to know if nuclear plants in their region would be safe if there were to be a terrorist attack - like there was at the World Trade Center - or if there were an airplane crash," she told DW.

The final version of the report is supposed to summarize this as well. As it is, the threat from terrorism is a sensitive topic, as many nations would prefer to not disclose their assessments and potential defense strategies.

National sovereignty preserved

The decisions on the political reactions toward the stress tests will also remain a matter for member states. In the end, the European Commission issues only a recommendation. Holzner said it should be clear that any nuclear plant that doesn't pass the test must be upgraded or shut down. The commission is responsible for the safety of the nuclear plants, she said, but the broader question is a matter of sovereignty: "It's up to the member states, and only the member states, to decide whether they use nuclear power or not."

Author: Michael Gessat / sad
Editor: Simon Bone