Stress tests on nuclear reactors, Europe's future energy mix and the lessons to be learnt from the ongoing nuclear accidents in Japan were the hot issues at Tuesday's and Wednesday's special appearances by EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger before Parliament's Energy and Environment Committees.
During his appearance at the Environment Committee on Wednesday, Mr Oettinger spoke of the "mammoth earthquake that shifted Japan's position on the globe" and said that "as a result we are somewhere between a disaster and a major disaster" and that "the site is effectively out of control".
He recalled that at Tuesday's meeting "There was no agreement as to whether or not this is a turning point for the EU future energy policy ... but here was a common view on the need for a safety review. The EU's 143 nuclear plants will be subjected to a European safety test and stress tests" taking into account risks as earthquakes, flooding, aircraft crashes, cyber or terrorist attacks, cooling systems and their stability and local electricity supply failure.
In the coming weeks, the Commission will start laying down the general standards for these stress tests. The standards should be defined by June and the safety checks carried out in the second half of the year. "Partner countries should be involved and have the same safety standards", he emphasised.
Mr Oettinger's opening statement elicited a wide range of responses from MEPs. In general the speedy reactions of EU leaders and the Commission were welcomed. Questions were asked about the proposed stress tests, a possible moratorium on nuclear energy, the future of the Euratom treaty and the EU's future energy mix.
Jo Leinen (S&D, DE) chair of the Environment Committee, welcomed "the fast response of the EU leaders meeting on 15 March", which he said was "a good thing because public opinion expects speedy action".
The proposed stress tests were welcomed by MEPs in general, but Carl Schlyter (Greens/EFA, Sweden) hoped that "they include the whole production chain, e.g. transport, waste treatment and plant security". While agreeing that the tests were a good measure, Marita Ulvskog (S&D, SV) said they were at the same time a very short term strategy which would not be enough.
Bairbre De Brun (GUE/NGL, UK) wanted to know if a moratorium was needed in Europe until the stress tests had been carried out, while Oreste Rossi (EFD, IT) asked whether the Commission should ask Member States not to take any hasty decisions but rather to await more technical details.
Mr Leinen Mr Rossi also asked whether it wasn't time to update the Euratom treaty, saying that since "it has never been amended, maybe it is time to revisit it and update it".
Karl-Heinz Florenz (EPP, DE) asked how the Commission intended to continue its climate policy. and whether in future compulsory efficiency goals could be included. Elisabetta Giardini (EPP, IT) and Kriton Arsenis (S&D, GR) asked whether Mr Oettinger thought it would be possible to meet the CO2 emission reduction target by 2050 without nuclear power, while Chris Davies (ALDE, UK) said "We do not want as a result ...to end up turning more and more to coal and abandoning our objective of achieving a low carbon economy."
In reply Mr Oettinger said "the urgency arises out of the significance of the accident" and "for the moment I am concentrating on the powers I have." He emphasised that Member States were still responsible for their energy mix and that Brussels could only give advice.
The Euratom treaty, he added, was an old treaty that no longer reflected the general safety understanding and powers at European level. He was therefore glad that it was up for review. As to the energy mix, 30% of the electricity mix in the EU as a whole came from nuclear. If, as the Commission suggested, by 2050 we were to produce 80% less CO2, the only way to do this was with energy generation with near zero per cent CO2 emissions.
Concerning the stress tests, Mr Oettinger said "I hope the general stress test will be something nearer to reality than the bank stress tests last year." He could not believe that all the 143 power stations would be approved and said there might be a need for reequipping some plants that might prove economically and technically impossible.
Debate in Industry Committee on Tuesday
In the debate the previous day at the Industry Committee, Alejo Vidal Quadras (EPP, ES), Giles Chichester (ECR, UK) and Edit Herzog (S&D, HU) contended that Europe should not panic and must get all the details about the accident correct before making any changes in long-term decisions about its energy future.
Rebecca Harms (Greens/EFA, DE), Matthias Groote (S&D, DE) and Fiona Hall (ALDE, UK) were concerned that nuclear meltdown was almost impossible to stop once it had started. They insisted that stress tests on the robustness of cooling systems and the storage of spent fuel, which is often kept in the plants, should therefore be very thorough.
Angelika Niebler (EPP, DE) and Jorgo Chatizmarkakis (ALDE, DE) were in favour of the increased "Europeanisation" of future safety standards, which would entail shared responsibility, and also called for research into alternative energy sources to be speeded up.
Vladimír Remek (GUE/NGL, CZ) wondered if the EU would hold consultations with Russia on the accident, while Lena Ek (ALDE, SE) asked about the consequences for the energy mix in the EU's Member States.
The Commissioner replied that he would report to MEPs on the criteria for the stress tests when they were ready: the first draft should be available after Easter. The tests would take account of the age and location of nuclear power plants. He also emphasised that any decision on the early closure of nuclear power plants or on a moratorium on the construction of future plants lay with national governments and public opinion in the Member States. Lastly, he called for patience since not all the facts on incidents in Japan were yet known and it would be wrong to jump to conclusions about the safety of the plants in Europe.