Nuclear package delivers safety but demands more cash

The European Commission is proposing a package of measures on nuclear safety and security of supply, with more money to be loaned to candidate countries to improve safety. The proposals cover nuclear installations during operation and decommissioning, the management of radioactive waste and trade in nuclear materials with Russia. But a pressure group has calculated that setting up new nuclear power stations in the UK could cost the public £1 billion.

“It is our responsibility to ensure a common approach to nuclear safety and waste management. The gaps in the Community legislation on nuclear safety must be filled,” said Loyola de Palacio, Commission Vice-President responsible for energy and transport.

Under the Euratom Treaty of 1957, the EU set up a European inspectorate for nuclear installations, but did not establish standards for nuclear safety. In a new communication adopted by the Commission two directives are proposed, one for safety, the other for waste management, along with recommended action to reach an agreement between energy group Euratom and the Russian Federation.

The safety directive calls for national independent safety inspectorates whose performance will be monitored by the EU, although no spot-checks will be carried out by the EU nor will European inspectors be appointed. It also recognises the need for sufficient funds to safely decommission plants.

The waste management directive proposes geological burial of waste as the safest method of disposal available at present. It requires countries to set timetabled programmes of radioactive waste disposal, with the selection of burial sites to be made by 2008, and the sites operational by 2018. It also advocates more funding towards nuclear waste management research.

In a separate move, the Commission has asked for the borrowing ceiling to be increased to cover Euratom loans to projects on nuclear safety and plant decommissioning in candidate countries. The Council of Ministers and the European Parliament will have to decide whether to increase the loan facility’s existing ceiling from €4,000 million to €6,000 million.

In a speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs, Frits Bolkestein, head of the EU’s Internal Market and Taxation, warned that nuclear energy was needed to wean the EU off overseas supplies of oil and gas. “Energy dependence is the weakest point of the European economy now and for decades to come,” warned Bolkestein, who also pointed out that nuclear energy avoids 312 million tons of CO2 per year, some 7% of all greenhouse gases emitted in the Union.

Despite continued problems with nuclear waste, argued Bolkestein, decisions are often made on the basis of emotive, unjustified fears. Without more nuclear energy, he said, Europe will have to suffer the rising costs of oil and gas.

But campaign group Socialist Environment and Resources Association warns of the potential costs of a programme of nuclear power stations in the UK, where the public might have to contribute more than one billion pounds a year.

Using a combination of official forecasts and nuclear industry requests,

SERA calculated that the total sum required to subsidise a new reactor programme, based on a UK government white paper out in 2003, would lie between £900 million and £1800 million per year.

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