Nuclear energy

Nuclear power stations currently produce around one third of the electricity and 14% of the energy consumed in the EU. Nuclear energy is a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels and represents a critical component in the energy mix of many Member States. However, in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, nuclear energy has become highly controversial. Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear energy by 2020, as well as the temporary closure of two Belgian reactors after the discovery of cracks in their vessels, has stepped up pressure for the abandonment of nuclear power in Europe. But it is the Member States themselves that have sole responsibility for choosing whether or not to use nuclear power. Nevertheless, at EU level greater efforts are being made to improve the safety standards of nuclear power stations and to ensure that nuclear waste is safely handled and disposed of.

Legal basis

Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom Treaty), Articles 40-52 (investment, joint undertakings and supplies) and 92-99 (nuclear common market).


To tackle the general shortage of ‘conventional’ energy in the 1950s, the six founding Member States looked to nuclear energy as a means of achieving energy independence. Since the costs of investing in nuclear energy could not be met by individual countries, the founding Member States joined together to form the European Atomic Energy Community. The general objectives of the Euratom Treaty are to contribute to the formation and development of Europe’s nuclear industries, so that all Member States can benefit from the development of atomic energy, and to ensure security of supply. At the same time, the Treaty guarantees high safety standards for the public and prevents nuclear materials intended principally for civilian use from being diverted to military use. Euratom’s powers are limited to peaceful civil uses of nuclear energy.


a.Radiation protection

Exposure to ionising radiation represents a significant danger for human health (both for the general public and for workers in the medical, industrial and nuclear sectors) and for the environment. The EU has adopted over time a patchwork of legislation in the area of radiation protection, which has recently been updated and simplified. Updating was necessary because the legislation in place did not fully reflect scientific progress and lacked consistency. Another reason was that the issues of natural radiation sources and the protection of the environment were not fully addressed. Council Directive 96/29/Euratom of 13 May 1996 laid down basic safety standards for protecting workers and the general public against the dangers of ionising radiation. In May 2012, the Commission published a proposal for a new directive updating the basic safety standards (COM(2012) 0242), which was adopted by the Council at the end of 2013 after consulting Parliament[1]. It simplifies European legislation by replacing five directives, and introduces binding requirements for protection against indoor radon, use of building materials and environmental impact assessment of discharges of radioactive effluents from nuclear installations. A separate directive on monitoring radioactive substances in water intended for human consumption, proposed by the Commission in March 2012 (COM(2012) 0147), was also adopted by the Council in 2013 after being approved by Parliament[2].

The Council regulation ‘laying down maximum permitted levels of radioactive contamination of foodstuffs and of feeding stuffs following a nuclear accident or any other case of radiological emergency’, proposed by the Commission in 2010 (COM(2010) 0184), is still awaiting a final decision. Parliament has approved an amended version of the legislation[3], based on a compromise reached with the Council.

b.Transport of radioactive substances and waste

Council Regulation (Euratom) 1493/93 of 8 June 1993 introduced a Community system for declaring shipments of radioactive substances between Member States, to ensure that the relevant authorities receive the same level of information concerning radiation protection as they did before 1993, when border controls were still in place. In 2012, the Commission published a proposal for a regulation establishing a single European system for the registration of carriers of radioactive materials (COM(2012) 0561). This regulation replaces the reporting and authorisation systems put in place by the Member States to implement Council Directive 96/29/Euratom on basic safety standards.

A system of prior authorisation for shipments of radioactive waste was established in the EU in 1992 and modified significantly in 2006. Council Directive 2006/117/Euratom of 20 November 2006 on the supervision and control of shipments of radioactive waste and spent fuel aims to guarantee an adequate level of public protection from such shipments. It lays down and lists a number of strict criteria, definitions and procedures that need to be applied when transporting radioactive waste and spent fuel for intra- and extra-Community shipments. In April 2013, the Commission published its first report on the application of the 2006 directive in the Member States in the 2008-2011 period.

c.Waste management

An EU legal framework for waste management in Europe was created in 2011 with the adoption of the Council Directive on the management of radioactive waste and spent fuel (2011/70/Euratom). It provides for close monitoring of national programmes for the construction and management of final repositories, as well as legally binding safety standards. Member States have to submit their first report on the implementation of their national programmes in 2015.

d.Safeguarding nuclear materials

A number of regulations have been adopted over time and amended in order to establish a system of safeguards ensuring that nuclear materials are used only for the purposes declared by their users and that international obligations are complied with (Commission Regulation (Euratom) 302/2005). These safeguards cover the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from the extraction of nuclear materials in the Member States, or their importation from third countries, to exportation outside the EU. The Commission is responsible for controlling civil nuclear material within the EU.

e.Safety of nuclear installations

With the Council directive on nuclear safety (2009/71/Euratom), a common EU legal framework for the safety of nuclear power plants was established. Member States are required to establish national frameworks with regard to nuclear safety requirements, licensing of nuclear power plants, supervision and enforcement. The directive makes the safety standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) partially legally binding and enforceable in the EU. Following the Fukushima nuclear accident, the March 2011 European Council called for a comprehensive risk and safety assessment of all EU nuclear power plants. The Commission was put in charge of carrying out voluntary stress tests for the EU’s 143 nuclear power reactors, with the aim of assessing the safety and robustness of nuclear installations in the event of extreme natural events (floods or earthquakes). In October 2012, the Commission released a communication on the results of the stress tests (COM(2012) 0571), which gave an overall positive assessment of current European safety standards but highlighted the need for further upgrades in order to ensure better consistency among Member States and catch up with international best practices. In March 2013, Parliament adopted a resolution pointing out the limits of the stress tests[4]. In June 2013, the Commission presented a legislative proposal, drawing on the results of the stress tests, to revise and strengthen the provisions of the current nuclear safety directive. It proposed to reinforce the role and independence of national regulatory authorities, to increase transparency, to enhance on-site emergency preparedness and response, and to introduce a European system of peer reviews of nuclear installations, along with specific safety reviews of older nuclear power plants.

f.Nuclear research and training activities

Nuclear research in Europe is funded through multiannual framework programmes. The Euratom programme for nuclear research and training activities complements, but remains separate from, Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation. The amount dedicated to the Euratom programme for the 2014-2018 period is EUR 1 608 million, divided among three specific programmes: one covering indirect actions in fusion energy research (EUR 728 million), one on nuclear fission and radiation protection (EUR 315 million), and one covering direct actions undertaken by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) (EUR 559 million). In the field of nuclear fission energy, a Sustainable Nuclear Energy Technology Platform was established in 2007 in order to better coordinate research and development, as well as demonstration and deployment. In the area of fusion energy, the EU is a founding member and main financial partner of ITER, an international nuclear fusion research and engineering project, which is currently building the world’s largest experimental nuclear fusion reactor in Cadarache, France. A Joint Undertaking for ITER and the Development of Fusion Energy has been established in order to promote scientific research and technological development in the field of fusion (Council Decision 2007/198/Euratom). Its members are Euratom (represented by the Commission), the EU Member States and certain third countries which have concluded cooperation agreements with Euratom.

Because of its growing costs, future funding of the ITER project has become increasingly controversial, and has led to some tussles between the EU institutions and Member States. In its communication entitled ‘ITER status and possible way forward’ (COM(2010) 0226), the Commission stressed that the cost of the project had turned out to be much higher than originally estimated. In its conclusions of 12 July 2010, the Council underlined its strong commitment to ITER, stating that it was willing to bear the estimated financing costs. A revised proposal was tabled by the Commission on 20 April 2011 (COM(2011) 0226), as the Council and the Parliament could not initially agree on the proposed budget. In December 2011, an agreement was finally reached on the extension of funding for the ITER project, involving an additional EUR 1 300 million in 2012 and 2013. Financing the additional costs already foreseen for 2014 to 2018 was one of the stumbling blocks in the negotiations on the EU multiannual financial framework for 2014 to 2020. It was finally decided to fund ITER within a ring-fenced area of the multiannual financial framework and hence to avoid financing it directly under Horizon 2020 or the Euratom programme.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament’s role in the decision-making process under the Euratom Treaty is limited since it has only consultation powers. Nevertheless, in its various resolutions on the topic, it has consistently put emphasis on the need to clarify the distribution of responsibilities between EU institutions and Member States and strengthen the EU common framework, as well as on the importance of improving safety and environmental protection requirements.

With its first-reading position of 2009 on the proposal for a Council directive setting up a Community framework for nuclear safety, Parliament put special emphasis on the fact that nuclear security is a matter of Community interest, which should be taken into consideration when deciding on licensing new plants or extending the lifetime of existing ones[5]. However, the final directive, which was adopted under the consultation procedure, focuses on the national responsibility of Member States and does not follow Parliament’s suggestions. In April 2014, Parliament is scheduled to adopt in plenary its position on the revised nuclear safety directive, following the endorsement by the ITRE Committee, in March 2014, of the report by Romana Jordan on the Commission’s legislative proposal (A7-0252/2014). The report sets out further requirements for the transparent provision of information to the public in the event of an accident, clearer definitions of nuclear safety and more detailed rules on safety implementation measures.

In its first-reading position endorsing the proposal for a regulation on maximum permitted levels of radioactive contamination of foodstuffs, Parliament changed the legal basis of the regulation from Article 31 (Euratom Treaty) to Article 168 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)[6].

In its resolution of July 2011 on energy infrastructure priorities for 2020 and beyond[7], Parliament strongly supported the Commission’s decision to introduce stress tests for European nuclear power plants. A supplementary resolution was adopted in plenary in March 2013, pointing out the limits of the ‘stress tests’ exercise carried out by the Commission in 2012 and asking for the inclusion in future tests of additional criteria, notably in relation to material deterioration, human error, and flaws in reactor vessels. Parliament urged full implementation of the safety improvements[8].

In its first-reading position of June 2011 on the proposed Council directive on the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste[9], Parliament supported the Commission’s proposal for a complete ban on the export of radioactive waste, while the Council was in favour of allowing exports under very strict conditions. Parliament also asked for it to be further specified that the directive relates to environmental protection and for sufficient provisions to ensure public information on and participation in waste management.

In its first-reading position of March 2013 on the proposal for a Council directive on monitoring radioactive substances in water intended for human consumption[10], Parliament requested a change of legal basis (from Article 31 and 32 of the Euratom Treaty to Article 192 TFEU) and, as a consequence, the following of the ordinary legislative procedure. Parliament proposed additional provisions on improved information for consumers, random water quality checks, and differentiated management of natural radiation levels and contamination from human activities. It also clarified the duties of Member States and of the Commission.

In its first-reading position of October 2013 on the proposal for a Council directive updating the basic safety standards for protection against ionising radiation[11], Parliament again called for a change of legal basis, from the Euratom Treaty to the TFEU. It extended the scope of the directive to any planned, existing, accidental or emergency radiation exposure, made stricter the dosage limits for which exposure is allowed, and strengthened penalties and reparation for damages. It also improved the system for informing the public.

[1]Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013)0564.

[2]Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013)0068.

[3]OJ C 188 E, 28.6.2012, p. 79.

[4]Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013)0089.

[5]OJ C 184 E, 8.7.2010, p. 216.

[6]OJ C 188 E, 28.6.2012, p. 80.

[7]OJ C 33 E, 5.2.2013, p. 46.

[8]Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013)0089.

[9]OJ C 390 E, 18.12.2012, p. 147.

[10]Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013)0068.

[11]Texts adopted, P7_TA(2013)0452.

Dagmara Stoerring