Three months after the publication of the official report of the ‘Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission’ installed by the National Diet of Japan, which confirmed that the Fukushima disaster was “manmade,” the European Commission published the results of its own stress tests of nuclear power plants on the territory of the European Union. (This is available in the form of a 20-page policy report and a 90-page technical report with detailed country results).
The stress tests included document analysis, panel meetings with national regulators and licensees as well as site visits. The analysis of documentation and expert interviews applied to all 17 participating countries. Site visits were organized in 23 nuclear plants out of a total of 132. In the absence of harmonized EU standards on nuclear safety, all plants were assessed following the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency IAEA.
The results of the assessment serve as a wake-up call to those who thought Fukushima was one of those low probability / high impact type of risks, which while tragic is statistically unavoidable, therefore, does not deserve more regulatory attention than average.
This is a problematic approach in any case, but especially considering that the average regulatory attention that is granted to nuclear power plants is pretty skewed towards the low end of the scale. According to the European Commission’s report:
“Following the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, measures to protect nuclear plants were globally agreed. The stress tests demonstrated however that in many instances, the implementation of these measures is still pending.” (p.6)
Still pending? Three Mile Island was 1979, Chernobyl 1986, i.e. 33 and 26 years ago respectively!
Here are some examples of pending problems:
• The IEAE guidelines for seismic loads and flooding have not been implemented.
• The safety assessments carried out in many countries are not up to international standards.
• In at least four reactors, less than one hour is foreseen for restore safety functions in case of loss of all electric power supply
• Many reactors do not have mobile equipment for use in case of accidents and their staff is not adequately trained to deal with severe incidents.
The problems do not just concern the poorer countries in Eastern Europe.
Take, for instance, France, a country which almost entirely relies on nuclear power for electricity (i.e. for a share of 79%) and has 59 nuclear power plants.
A typical French response to the hazards entailed in nuclear power is to dismiss it by claiming that French nuclear power plants enjoy high safety standards. However, according to the European Commission experts, the French make little use of probabilistic hazard assessment, especially regarding earthquakes, and as a result the seismic hazard of French nuclear plants represents at best a ‘rough’ estimate. This is also true for the estimation of hazards associated with floods. What’s more, the French safety assessment framework regarding climate conditions misses entirely out on tornadoes, heavy rainfall and extreme temperatures. And, not to forget: the measures taken to ensure battery autonomy in case of total loss of electric power are deficient.
The Commission’s report concludes in the manner of most risk assessment reports. Monitoring is necessary and, therefore, it is recommended to draft, then implement, National Action (Reform) Plans. Hopefully not another one of those that end up in the drawer only in order to be pulled out years later and passed around with the remark ‘implementation pending.’