Nuclear safety: First priority for EU

The safety of nuclear energy production in the EU is the primary responsibility of power plant operators supervised by independent national regulators. An EU-wide approach to nuclear safety is important because a nuclear accident could have negative consequences for countries across Europe and beyond.

On the basis of nuclear risk and safety assessments (stress tests) carried out in 2011 and 2012, the lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident, and the safety requirements of the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the EU amended its Nuclear Safety Directive in 2014.

The amended Directive requires EU countries to give the highest priority to nuclear safety at all stages of the lifecycle of a nuclear power plant. This includes carrying out safety assessments before the construction of new nuclear power plants and ensuring significant safety enhancements for old reactors. Specifically, the Directive:

  • strengthens the role of national regulatory authorities by ensuring their independence from national governments. EU countries must provide the regulators with sufficient legal powers, staff, and financial resources
  • creates a system of peer reviews. EU countries choose a common nuclear safety topic every six years and organise a national safety assessment on it. They then submit their assessment to other countries for review. The findings of these peer reviews are made public
  • requires a safety re-evaluation for all nuclear power plants to be conducted at least once every 10 years
  • increases transparency by requiring operators of nuclear power plants to release information to the public, both in times of normal operation and in the event of incidents.

In 2015 the European Commission published a report on the progress made in EU countries on implementing the Nuclear Safety Directive. Overall, the report found a good level of compliance with the rules. The next national reports will be submitted in 2020.

International cooperation

The EU cooperates with non-EU countries and international organisations on nuclear safety. In 2013, the European Commission signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to further strengthen the cooperation, including on expert peer reviews, emergency preparedness and response.

On behalf of the European Atomic Energy Community, the Commission takes part in triennial review meetings (RM) and extraordinary meetings (EM) on the Convention on Nuclear Safety and produces corresponding reports:

The IAEA and the Commission meet annually to review progress achieved from working together on a range of nuclear activities.

Radioactive waste and spent fuel

Radioactive waste is mainly generated from the production of electricity in nuclear power plants or from the non-power-related use of radioactive materials for medical, research, industrial and agricultural purposes. All EU countries generate radioactive waste, and 20 of them also manage spent fuel on their territory.

Owing to its radiological properties and the potential hazard it poses, it is important to ensure the safe management of radioactive waste at all stages. It requires containment and isolation from humans and the living environment over a long period of time.

Progress has been made in safely disposing of very low level and low level waste in the EU, and so far Finland, France and Sweden have selected sites for the deep geological disposal of intermediate and high level waste from civilian facilities. It is likely that they will open the first repositories for these kinds of waste between 2024 and 2035.

Radioactive waste and spent fuel management directive

The EU’s Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Management Directive 2011/70/Euratom requires that

  • EU countries have a national policy for spent fuel and radioactive waste management
  • EU countries draw up and implement national programmes for the management of these materials, including the disposal, of all spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste generated on their territory
  • EU countries should have in place a comprehensive and robust framework and competent and independent regulatory body, as well as financing mechanisms to ensure that adequate funds are available
  • Public information on radioactive waste and spent fuel and opportunities for public participation are available
  • EU countries submit to the Commission every three years (starting August 2015) national reports on the implementation of the directive, on the basis of which the Commission will draft a report on the overall implementation of the directive and an inventory of radioactive waste and spent fuel present in the Community’s territory and the future prospects
  • EU countries carry out self-assessments and invite international peer reviews of their national framework, competent authorities and/or national programme at least every ten years (by August 2023)
  • The export of radioactive waste for disposal in countries outside the EU is allowed only under strict conditions.

Radiation protection

In daily life, we are exposed to various sources of ionising radiation, for example natural radiation sources, medical applications, industrial practices, effluents from nuclear installations, fallout from nuclear weapon testing, and the impact of nuclear accidents. Exposure to increased levels of ionising radiation can be harmful to human health. The Euratom Community therefore seeks to protect its citizens against the dangers of increased levels of exposure.

Basic safety standards

The Euratom Community has established a set of basic safety standards to protect workers, members of the public, and patients against the dangers arising from ionising radiation. These standards also include emergency procedures that were strengthened following the Fukushima nuclear accident.
The Basic Safety Standards ensure:

  • protection of workers exposed to ionising radiation, such as workers in the nuclear industry and other industrial applications, medical staff and those working in places with indoor radon or in activities involving naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM)
  • protection of members of the public, for example from radon in buildings
  • protection of medical patients, for example by avoiding accidents in radio-diagnosis and radiotherapy
  • strengthened requirements on emergency preparedness and response incorporating lessons learnt from the Fukushima accident.

The basic safety standards are developed in consultation with a group of scientific experts in public health and in particular in radiation protection.
The latest Basic Safety Standards Directive entered into force on 6 February 2014 and EU countries must ensure compliance by 6 February 2018.

Emergency preparedness and response

In the event of a nuclear accident, fast and accurate sharing of information can make a huge difference in ensuring people’s safety. Under the Euratom Treaty, the European Commission is responsible for exchanging information quickly. It does this through:

  • The European Community Urgent Radiological Information Exchange (ECURIE), which was set up to facilitate early notification and information exchange in the event of a radiological or nuclear emergency. All EU countries plus Switzerland, Norway, Montenegro and the Republic of North Macedonia take part, and they must promptly notify the Commission if they decide to take measures in order to protect their population in the event of an emergency. The Commission must then make this notification available to all other members.
  • The European Radiological Data Exchange Platform (EURDEP), which makes radiological monitoring data from 38 European countries available to each other. All EU Countries plus Iceland, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, the  Republic of North Macedonia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Serbia and Belarus participate in EURDEP. EURDEP data is usually provided at least once a day. Data is delivered at least once every hour during an emergency. Public radiation monitoring data is made available at the public EURDEP site.

Transport of radioactive materials

All Member States in the EU produce radioactive waste, which come from either facilities like nuclear power plants and research reactors, or though activities like radioisotope applications in medicine, industry, agriculture, research and education.

Radioactive waste is any radioactive material in gaseous, liquid or solid form that is not going to be used any longer in the country of origin or in the destination country. The material also has to be controlled as radioactive waste by a regulatory body under the legislative and regulatory framework of the countries of origin and destination. A natural or legal person can decide if a material is radioactive waste, but the decision needs to be accepted by the countries. 

The shipment of radioactive waste and spent fuel, through import, export and transit are common practices in the EU that occur regularly. 

The EU’s Directive on Shipments of Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel (2006/117/Euratom) establishes a system of prior authorisation for such shipments in Europe. The directive

  • requires operators to notify national authorities about shipments of radioactive materials which depart from, go through, or end up in the EU
  • allows EU countries to ship spent fuel to each other for reprocessing and organise the return of the resulting radioactive materials
  • allows EU countries to send shipments of radioactive materials that do not comply with the directive back to their country of origin
  • prohibits the export of radioactive waste to African, Caribbean or Pacific countries, to Antarctica, or to any country which does not have the resources to safely manage it.

Standing working group of national experts

To help and advice the European Commission on the transport of radioactive materials, a standing working group of national experts was set up in 1982.

This group on safe transport of radioactive materials in the EU exchanges information on the application of regulations concerning the transport of radioactive materials worldwide and makes proposals to the Commission.

Their fifth report (2006) recommended the implementation of a new radioactive waste transport safety programme covering six main areas:

  • supporting the international review and revision of radioactive materials transport regulations and safety guides
  • strengthening safety and security in the transport of radioactive waste with regards to the latest scientific and technological developments
  • progressing the development of emergency preparedness and response to prevent illicit trafficking in radioactive materials
  • assisting newer EU countries in the development and implementation of national regulatory infrastructure
  • promoting transparency by providing information to the public and the media
  • reducing the refusal of safe shipments of radioactive materials and removing barriers to competition.
  • The Commission Communication (COM(2006)102 final) introduced the fifth report from the group to the European Parliament and the Council.

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