The Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) was signed in Rome in 1957, together with the Treaty establishing the EEC. It was the launch pad for European co-operative research on nuclear fusion and nuclear fission that continues today, as a new Commission report on recent Euratom research projects demonstrates.
Nuclear power provides almost one third of the electricity consumed in the EU, a proportion that highlights its important contribution to the economic and social life of Europe and its citizens. What's more, it is an indigenous carbon-free technology, making it an important part of the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower our dependence on imported energy.
|Euratom – father of the EU research programmes – was conceived the same year as the Treaty of Rome, in 1957.|
Although it sometimes suffers from bad press – mostly related to problems of radioactive waste disposal – the nuclear energy sector remains a vital resource for Europe that is characterised by cutting-edge technologies and employs several hundred thousand highly skilled people.
Key issues in nuclear research are safety, disposal and improving reactor efficiency – factors that are reflected in the projects funded under the Euratom programme in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). A recent European Commission publication, called ‘Euratom Research Projects and Training Activities', gives project synopses of recently approved, EU-funded work in these fields.
Serving Europeans and the environment
As with other research activities, FP6-Euratom is funding a smaller number of projects, 20 so far since FP6's launch in 2002, but they tend to be much larger. In the field of infrastructure, the Hotlab project supports a network of laboratories with the expertise and capability to handle radioactive materials needed for research into safe waste disposal. In safety research, the Perfect project is developing new models to predict the effect of irradiation on reactor components.
Meanwhile, the EC-Sarnet network of excellence is pooling knowledge on severe nuclear accident management. The geological disposal of nuclear waste concerns the Esdred and NF-Pro projects, while Europart and Red-Impact are investigating transmutation and other concepts to produce less waste in the first place.
Maintaining and improving the skills base for nuclear technologies in Europe is vital for the future. Graduate numbers in the field have been falling and this trend must be reversed, Commission reports reveal. For this reason, the projects emphasise Europe's training needs in the nuclear engineering field. One action, Neptuno, seeks to harmonise high-quality nuclear education in Europe. Cetrad is assessing training needs in geological disposal, and Eurac is looking at future skills deficits in radiation protection.
Importantly, these new projects have a strongly international flavour. Not only do they contribute to building the European Research Area through the interaction and exchange of high-quality personnel between research institutions in the Member States; but also they encourage co-operation with the wider nuclear community. As well as the 21 Member States working together in these projects, six non-EU countries are represented in the consortia and special bilateral co-operation efforts with Russian and Ukrainian nuclear institutions have been concluded. In addition, training and travel grants to support the projects will allow young nuclear researchers from the ex-Soviet states to gain experience in European labs funded by the Union.