May 25, 2011 - 17:39 AMT
EU will test 143 European reactors for natural disasters

The European Union has agreed to test its nuclear plants for natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as for man-made catastrophes, while leaving the sensitive issue of terrorist attack-prevention for later, the European Commission said.

The so-called "stress tests" will check the resistance of 143 European reactors to natural disasters and "man-made failures and actions," such as "plane crashes and explosions close to nuclear plants," the commission, which has executive powers within the EU, said in a statement.

The issue of how to deal with terrorist attacks in the criteria held up the negotiations among the 27 member countries and the commission because some governments, led by Germany and Austria and supported by the commission, wanted their inclusion, but others, including the U.K. and France, opposed it.

EU leaders decided to stress-test their nuclear plants in the wake of the radiation scare that has been threatening Japan after the major March earthquake and consequent tsunami knocked out the cooling systems of one of its plants.

But while it was fairly easy to agree to have the tests, the talks became trickier once government representatives had to decide what to include in the criteria.

Negotiators reached a tentative agreement almost two weeks ago, but that was later rebuffed by some countries. The last government gave its consent to a final accord late Tuesday night, an EU official said.

According to the agreement, the stress tests will check the technical consequences that an accident would have on the each reactor—the resistance of its containment structure and its readiness to fight a fire, for example.

However, prevention of terrorist attacks will be dealt with separately, as an issue of national security rather than nuclear safety, the official said.

"It is agreed that the commission and the member countries will meet to define the methodology here," the EU official said, adding that he hoped this would happen soon, but without giving any precise time frame.

The EU also agreed that international experts will review the reports from national nuclear regulators, to ensure they comply with the criteria. It is likely that seven experts will form a review group and the latter won't include any member from the country whose report is being assessed, the official explained.

How to organize the supervision of national reports was another sticky issue, with governments being reluctant to submit their documents to some international committee.

"I feel this nuclear stress test has met the requirement for high objectivity," Guenther Oettinger, the European energy commissioner, said during a press conference Wednesday. The tests will start June 1, and the commission will report to the EU leaders in December, but the review of the safety reports will likely spill into next year, he said. The commission said in its statement that this will be done by the end of April 2012.

The tests will, however, remain voluntary, because the EU has no legal authority to mandate member countries to carry them out, and it will be up to each national government to decide how to deal with a plant that fails the stress tests, The Wall Street Journal reported.