Nuclear "stress tests" carried out at the European Union's 143 atomic reactors have exposed "hundreds" of problems which could need up to €25bn of investment in order to restore proper plant safety levels, a report reveals today.
The disturbing safety shortcomings were disclosed in a leaked draft of a report on the state of Europe's atomic power industry, which is due to be published by the European Commission in Brussels today. It was commissioned in the aftermath of last year's nuclear disaster in Japan, when an earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to a meltdown at three of the Fukushima nuclear plant's reactors.
The draft, which could differ from the final version of the report, concluded that "on the basis of the stress test results, practically all nuclear plants need to undergo safety improvements".
"Hundreds of technical upgrade measures have already been identified," it added.
With Europe struggling to shake off its economic woes, the draft report warned that safety precautions differed greatly and that the amount needed to upgrade them ranged from €30m to €200m per reactor unit – or a total of up to €25bn across the EU.
It also pointed out that 47 of the EU's plants contained a total of 111 reactors which were surrounded by more than 100,000 inhabitants living within 30km.
Although the stress tests were conducted to minimise the risk of a Fukushima-style disaster happening in Europe, the report came to the alarming conclusion that in some cases safety recommendations made in the aftermath of much earlier nuclear disasters had not been enforced.
"Following the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, urgent measures to protect nuclear plants were agreed. The stress tests demonstrated that even today, decades later, their implementation is still pending in some member states," it warned.
According to the leak, the stress tests had shown that four reactors in two unnamed countries would have less than an hour to restore safety functions if electrical power was lost. However, the draft failed to specifically identify any of the reactors which suffered problems, or, in most cases, reveal the exact nature of the safety defects.
Fears about causing alarm to residents living in the vicinity of reactors was underlined by a statement issued by the regulatory body for European nuclear safety, which urged the report's authors not to use language that could undermine public confidence.
The stress tests also found deficiencies at Britain's nuclear plants. It said most of them lacked an alternative emergency control room which could be used as a back-up if the main control room became contaminated by radiation. However, the UK Department of Energy insisted to the BBC that there was no evidence that British nuclear facilities were unsafe.
The leaked details of the report prompted criticism from anti-nuclear groups which argued that its warnings did not go nearly far enough. They said the draft failed to address risks in crucial areas, such as ageing technology, human error or inability to withstand terrorist attacks.
"If this exercise were serious, the Commission would be recommending the closure of unsafe or ageing reactors," Rebecca Harms, a veteran German Green party member and co-president of the Green/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, told the BBC.
Without being specific, the draft report singled out France, which relies on nuclear power for 80 per cent of its electricity and is Europe's biggest atomic energy producer. It has a total of 58 nuclear reactors and the report found failings at all of them.
The problems appear to have been unearthed even though France carried out its own stress tests on its 19 nuclear plants and 58 reactors last year in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
France boosted its investment in nuclear power after Fukushima but in neighbouring Germany, widespread public alarm prompted Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative-led government to perform a policy U-turn and commit itself to abandoning nuclear power by 2022. In the aftermath of the French stress tests, France's ASN nuclear safety agency said they showed that "sufficient" safety levels were being maintained but recommended additional facilities to cope with accidents and ensure that plants could resist extreme situations such as flooding or earthquakes.
Yesterday's leaked document also said that next year the EU Commission intended to propose new insurance and liability legislation which would "improve the situation of potential victims in the event of a nuclear accident".