Nuclear power plants generate almost 30% of the electricity produced in the EU. There are 130 nuclear reactors in operation in 14 EU countries. Each EU country decides alone whether to include nuclear power in its energy mix or not. Nuclear power currently being produced is released by a process called nuclear fission. It involves the splitting of atoms using uranium to release energy.
The peaceful use of nuclear energy within the EU is governed by the 1957 Euratom Treaty which established the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). While Euratom is a separate legal entity from the EU, it is governed by the EU's institutions.
The European Commission deals with nuclear activities from three angles:
- Nuclear safety is about the safe operation of nuclear installations. It is complemented by radiation protection and radioactive waste management.
- Nuclear safeguards are measures to ensure that nuclear materials are used only for the purposes declared by the users.
- Nuclear security relates to the physical protection of nuclear material and installations against intentional malicious acts.
The EU promotes the highest safety standards for all types of civilian nuclear activity, including power generation, research, and medical use. In response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, a series of stress tests were carried out in 2011 and 2012 to measure the ability of EU nuclear installations to stand up to natural disasters.
In July 2014, the EU amended its Nuclear Safety Directive from 2009, which sets up common safety rules for nuclear installations.
Radioactive waste and decommissioning
Radioactive waste results from nuclear activities such as electricity generation, medicine, and research. The EU's Directive for the Management of Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel sets out rules for safely disposing of used radioactive materials.
The shutting down and decommissioning of a nuclear power plant at the end of its lifecycle is a long and expensive process. The 'Waste Directive' also requires the creation of EU country plans for financing the safe disposal of radioactive waste during decommissioning.
The EU has set up nuclear decommissioning assistance programmes to help Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Slovakia finance the safe decommissioning of old Soviet-type reactors.
The EU has radiation protection legislation in place to protect human health against the dangers arising from ionising radiation. This includes the Basic Safety Standards, supplemented by a number of acts ensuring a high level of protection for the public, the workers and the patients.
In addition, the EU requires EU countries to monitor radioactivity in the air, water, soil and foodstuffs. It also plays an important role in the international exchange of radiological information, in particular in the event of a nuclear emergency.
Nuclear fusion is currently at an experimental phase. It produces energy by fusing light atoms such as hydrogen at extremely elevated pressures and high temperatures. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is an experimental fusion reactor in the south of France aiming to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion as a viable source of energy.
Proper use of nuclear materials – safeguards
The EU wants to ensure that nuclear materials are not diverted from their original intended use. Under the Euratom Treaty, nuclear safeguards were established to guarantee this. They oblige users to keep accurate records and make declarations to the European Commission. The Commission verifies these declarations and performs inspections.
The physical protection of nuclear installations and radioactive materials is related to countries' security and defence policies and is mostly within their competence.
Nuclear fuel supply security
The Euratom Supply Agency (ESA) ensures a regular and diversified supply of nuclear fuels to EU users. In particular, the ESA recommends that EU facilities operating nuclear power plants maintain stocks of nuclear materials and cover their needs by entering into long-term contracts with a diverse range of suppliers. It also monitors the EU nuclear fuel market.