European Union updates nuclear safety rules

The European Union (EU) has formally adopted new laws aimed at tightening safety standards and improving the regulation of nuclear facilities in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The new Nuclear Safety Directive will cover all existing and new nuclear installations across Europe and includes a requirement for greater transparency and arrangements to provide better public information on the safety record of nuclear sites.

Political agreement by EU member states on the new Directive was agreed in June, and the Directive was formally adopted by the EU's Council of Ministers on 8 July.

The new Directive strengthens an earlier EU Nuclear Safety Directive adopted in 2009 and includes a new EU-wide safety objective to prevent accidents and avoid radioactive releases, which requires member states to "ensure that nuclear installations are designed, sited, and constructed, commissioned, operated and decommissioned with the objective of preventing accidents and, should an accident occur, mitigating its consequences and avoiding radioactive release."  At all stages of the lifecycle of a nuclear installation, member states must give first priority to nuclear safety.

However, proposals to set specific technical requirements for the safety of nuclear sites were not adopted because they “can become quickly obsolete given the continuous improvements expected in safety over time”.

Under the terms of the Directive nuclear regulators and site operators will have an obligation to provide information on normal operating conditions of nuclear installations as well as emergency information in case of incidents and accidents.  The public will be given the opportunity to participate in the licensing of nuclear installations.

The Directive also strengthens the role and independence of nuclear safety regulators, and rules that nuclear regulators in all EU states must have sufficient legal powers, sufficient staffing, the necessary expertise and experience, and sufficient financial resources to do their job effectively.

The Directive builds on the programme of nuclear 'stress tests' that the European Council ordered to be undertaken by nuclear operators soon after the Fukushima nuclear emergency to investigate threats to safety and emergency response arrangements.  Under the Directive's requirements a system of European peer reviews of nuclear safety are to be conducted every six years.

EU member states now have three years to translate the Directive's requirements into their own national laws.

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