Europe’s old nuclear reactors must have an assessment

World Environment Day on 06.06.2014 was important for European nuclear energy policy, and the triggering issue was in Ukraine. No, it was not because of the G7 meeting talking about the consequences of energy dependence in the shadow of the political problems in Ukraine. The G7 did not really address nuclear, because they are aware nuclear cannot really help them out and the risks of nuclear power in conflict areas are not a strong issue on their agenda.

The important issue was a decision of the Meeting of Parties of the Convention (MoP) on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, also known as the Espoo Convention [1]. Such meetings are normally rather boring with occasional pearls at side-event and seminars. This time there was a lot of heated discussion on the lifetime extension of the Rivne 1 and 2 nuclear reactors in Ukraine.

In the end, the MoP endorsed the conclusions of its Implementation Commission [2]. As a result, all ageing nuclear power stations in Europe will have to be submitted to an environmental impact assessment before a licence renewal or the approval of a 10-year-periodic safety review.

This is a groundbreaking decision. Until now, most European countries prolonged the lifetimes of their ageing nuclear reactors by only looking at whether prescribed safety standards are met. Normally, there is no further consideration about whether the increasing risk of potential large environmental impacts due to a severe accident at an ageing power station can be justified in comparison with other alternatives for generating electricity. The public is not consulted before old reactors receive another lease on life. This now has to change.

And the Espoo Convention Implementation Committee has made it clear that its decision about Ukrainian nuclear reactors is valid for all parties to the Convention, from Spain in the South to Finland in the North, from Armenia in the East to the UK in the West.

Technically speaking, the MoP endorsed its Implementation Committee’s conclusion that Ukraine had breached the Convention by not carrying out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before finalising a periodic safety review of the Rivne nuclear reactors 1 and 2 that allows them to operate another 10 years beyond their original 30 years design lifetime.

The Implementation Committee concluded that the potential impacts of extending the lifetime of a nuclear reactor apply to neighbouring and to distant countries. An EIA, therefore, has to be transboundary, and include distant countries that might be affected after, for instance, a severe nuclear accident. It also concluded that an EIA has to be carried out even when no physical changes are to be made to the reactors [3], a reason the highest Dutch court recently used to block an EIA for the Netherland’s 40-year-old Borssele nuclear reactor. The Espoo Implementation Committee urged Ukraine to carry out an EIA that would permit public participation and prepare EIA documentation before the next periodic safety review.

With this MoP decision, 60 ageing nuclear reactors in Europe will have to undergo an environmental assessment in the coming three years [4]. There are good alternatives for lifetime extension of ageing nuclear reactors. Greenpeace has published studies that show energy efficiency measures and renewable energy sources can help address today’s energy challenges, including: climate change, energy dependence and the need to develop in a faster, cheaper and cleaner way [5]. With environmental assessments now necessary, governments will have to compare longer operation of old nuclear reactors with these reasonable alternatives.

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