Almost all EU nuclear reactors need safety upgrades, report says

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Bringing all of the 145 nuclear reactors in the European Union up to safety standards could cost as much as $32 billion, says a European Commission report released Thursday.

Sobered by the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year in Japan that forced more than 160,000 people to evacuate, European leaders agreed last year to subject their nuclear reactors to added tests to gauge how well they would withstand earthquakes, floods, airplane crashes and other disasters.

Almost all of the nuclear reactors need some kind of improvements to ensure safety, nuclear safety reviewers found, though none are so dire that they need to be closed. Five nuclear reactors allowed operators less than an hour to restore safety functions if electrical power was totally lost, the report warns.

The report also faults European Union countries for inconsistency in how they assessed threats to their nuclear reactors, with some countries failing to use International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines for earthquake safety. It urges the EU to set guidelines for protecting nuclear reactors in natural disasters.


More than half of the nuclear reactors did not have emergency equipment stored in a protected place from which it could easily be retrieved, the report said. Eight of 10 reactors need to install or improve instruments to alert plant operators to possible earthquakes.

Forty reactors lack measures to prevent hydrogen explosions that don’t have to be triggered by other systems or human intervention; two dozen of them don’t have a backup emergency control room in case the main control room becomes uninhabitable because of radiation, fire or other damage. Countries with nuclear reactors included in the study are now supposed to prepare national action plans laying out how they will improve their safety systems. The European Commission plans to report back on whether its safety recommendations have been carried out in June 2014.

The EU heralded the step as “an unprecedented exercise” laudable for its transparency. However, the environmental group Greenpeace has criticized the “stress tests” as inadequate, failing to weigh all of the types of problems that could befall the reactors in a disaster.

Other critics said the estimated costs of improving the nuclear reactors -- ranging from $13 billion to $32 billion -- made continuing to invest in atomic power too expensive. Socialist EU lawmaker Kathleen van Brempt said that the “extremely disturbing” findings showed money should go to sustainable energy instead.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: European Commissioner for Energy Gunther Oettinger gives a news briefing on the risk and safety assessment of nuclear reactors in the European Union at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. Credit: Olivier Hoslet / European Pressphoto Agency