Column: Haider: EU expands role in nuclear power sector through new waste Directive

The EU continues to expand its role in the nuclear power sector via the Directive on the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste

Over the years the EU’s decision-making power has grown in various industrial sectors. However, in the field of nuclear energy the Commission’s role has expanded more slowly. In 2002, the Commission proposed numerous legislative initiatives, the purpose of which was to foster a pan-European policy framework for nuclear energy.

Yet the legislative package in question was poorly received with only a few of the measures being approved. Moreover, the measures which would have required Member States to have determined a solution for the final disposal of nuclear waste and spent fuel by 2008, and to have these facilities ready for use by 2018, was considered as unrealistic in both the Parliament and the Council.

Nevertheless, following the events in Fukushima the EU’s authority in the field of nuclear power has increased. More, not less, supranational decision-making powers over the nuclear power sector is hoped for. Questions relating to the final disposal of nuclear waste play a big part in determining the public acceptance of nuclear power. According to a Eurobarometer survey, over 60% of EU citizens are prepared to accept nuclear power as part of the energy mix on the condition that nuclear waste is handled in a sustainable way.

The EU took a significant step forward when on 19 July the Council voted in favour of the Commission’s Directive on the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste from last November. The Directive applies internationally accepted principles and guidelines (in particular those of the International Atomic Energy Agency) on the management of nuclear waste and makes them binding for EU Member States. According to the Directive, EU Member States will be required to establish an independent authority that ensures nuclear power companies have adequate financial resources to cover the costs of waste disposal as well as ensuring that staff working in the field of disposal have the necessary training. Additionally they would be responsible for making sure that decision making related to the disposal of waste is transparent.

The Directive also requires all Member States to draft binding plans for the final disposal of nuclear waste by 2015. Following this, the Commission may request revisions to the programmes submitted by Member States. The programmes should set out a clear timetable with milestones, and identify financing needs and sourcing for the final disposal of waste. However, no binding deadline will be set for the completion of nuclear waste repositories.

The Directive does not reform legislative authority over the nuclear power sector within the EU where both the Parliament and the Council have roles. The Parliament had a consultative role during the legislative process of the Directive. This set-up was determined by the Euratom Treaty which falls outside the scope of the reforms enacted by the Lisbon Treaty.

Nonetheless, the Parliament is likely to continue to push for expanded law-making powers for future legislative packages that concern nuclear power – of which plenty more are expected in the coming years. As a result the Member States can expect more stringent and detailed legislation on nuclear power in the future. Should the Parliament gain an expanded role this will certainly reorder the balance of power between the various EU institutions and national authorities in the field of nuclear energy. In the meantime, more changes are due as the Commission is scheduled to update the Nuclear Safety Directive by the end of next year at the latest.

Ali Haider
Aula Europe