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Brussels, 22 September 2003

EU networks contribute to European nuclear plant safety

As Europe's 150 nuclear power reactors grow older, maintaining high safety levels is a key issue for industry and policymakers. The European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) has led ten years of network collaboration between key European players in research and development (R&D) on ageing nuclear power plant safety. The 'networking for effective research and development' seminar, to be held at the JRC Institute for Energy in Petten (the Netherlands) on 22 and 23 September 2003, will look into future networking activities for nuclear plant life management. The Commission co-ordinates major networks on the ageing of materials in nuclear power plants (AMES), on inspection and qualification (ENIQ), for evaluating structural integrity of components (NESC) and on application of neutron diffraction techniques (NET), and on safety of Eastern European type nuclear facilities (SENUF). These are part of the JRC's SAFELIFE project on the safety of ageing nuclear power plants. These initiatives address issues such as stepping up safety of Soviet-era nuclear reactors in Eastern Europe, checking the capacity of ageing nuclear facilities to withstand accidents, and preventing cracks and leaks.

According to European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin: “Players in the nuclear sector have to talk to each other especially when nuclear safety is at stake. Sharing vital information to enhance the reliability of nuclear plants is a necessity rather than a choice. EU-wide networks in the nuclear field play a key role in processing and disseminating data, in bridging information gaps and achieving a critical mass in knowledge. This allows for a fast response in the event of problems and actually prevents problems from arising. The Commission fosters this information flow and contributes to it. Lessons learned during the past 10 years will now be used to step up co-operation, in the spirit of the European Research Area.”

Nuclear power in Europe

Europe relies on nuclear power for much of its electricity. However, by 2005, more than 70% of such power plants will have passed their 20-year life span, with almost 30% more than 30 years old. The European Commission has worked for many years with the support of expert groups on the progressive harmonisation of safety requirements and practices to ensure the highest standards of nuclear safety. As an independent body, the JRC co-ordinates and networks with international organisations involved in nuclear research and activities.

Defining the EU's approach to nuclear safety

On 30 January 2003, the Commission adopted two proposals for Directives designed to pave the way for a EU approach to the safety of nuclear power plants and the management of radioactive waste(1). These were followed by measures designed to produce a comprehensive EU approach to nuclear safety, and to introduce common criteria and monitoring mechanisms throughout the EU.

JRC involvement in harmonisation and research activities includes organisation of benchmarking exercises and management of specialised European networks. These aim to improve nuclear power reactor safety worldwide; the Commission is developing enhanced nuclear safety technology and promoting the open exchange of information among network members.

Developing a pan-European strategy

Nuclear safety has long been a national issue. Now, through these longstanding collaborative efforts, a major step has been made in specific areas towards a pan-European approach. Organisations from 20 countries, including EU Member States and accession countries, have contributed expertise and facilities to collaborative R&D projects, conducting a broad co-operative effort to improve safety. Working together with the Commission, they study methods to assess nuclear safety, areas for future co-operation and monitoring progress. They have analysed different safety procedures, benchmarked in experiments and validated through large scale testing.

More information may be found at:

Editorial background note

Nuclear power plant safety

Maintaining a high level of knowledge and skills in the field of nuclear safety is key to ensure the effective regulation of nuclear power. Over the past ten years, the Commission has co-ordinated a series of European networks in the area of nuclear plant life management and in particular structural integrity aspects. The overall aim is to identify best practice or consensual points of view on selected R&D issues, backed up by peer-reviewed data and analyses.

The JRC also carries out nuclear safety analysis management to ensure sustainable and safe energy production. Its role includes data collection and analysis of accidents, both controlled and unexpected. Data is forwarded to nuclear power producers, helping them plan and improve safety measures, and providing a basis for the future development of European standards.

The JRC has now established an overall project on the safety of ageing components in nuclear power plants within the EU Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6 2003-2006). SAFELIFE provides an integrated approach to R&D activities on critical issues for plant life management of ageing nuclear power installations. The focus is on establishing European best practices for structural integrity assessment of key components, covering the main R&D disciplines involved and considering all Western and Russian-type nuclear power plant designs.

Networking in practice

The first JRC networks on structural integrity of critical components for nuclear installations were set up in 1992. They now include:

Assessment of nuclear power plant core internals (AMALIA);

  • Ageing material European strategy (AMES);

  • European network for inspection and qualification (ENIQ);

  • Network for evaluating structural components (NESC);

  • Network on neutron techniques standardisation for structural integrity (NET); and

  • Safety of Eastern European type nuclear facilities (SENUF).

    The Commission has focussed on understanding phenomena that could affect nuclear safety. For instance, the in-service inspection qualification methodology developed by ENIQ is a reference point both in Europe and internationally for qualification of the inspection techniques used to check the presence of defects or cracks. The network organised a series of practical trials leading to the publication of eight recommended practices demonstrating the application of the qualification methodology.

    A recent survey commissioned by the European Nuclear Regulators Working Group showed requirement for inspection qualification based on the ENIQ European Methodology has or will be introduced in almost all Member States with nuclear power, as well as in several accession countries.

    All organisations must be well prepared to respond to crises in the unlikely event of a nuclear emergency or accident. A thorough understanding of the transient behaviour of possible incidents and accidents is a necessary prerequisite to limit their potential consequences. NESC organised a €10 million spinning cylinder project, where a seven-tonne steel pressure vessel containing 'hidden' defects was examined under blind conditions by leading non-destructive testing teams throughout Europe.

    An exhaustive programme of materials testing and structural integrity modelling was carried out in parallel, with the JRC providing the focal point for the data generated. A test simulating the effect of a severe transient such as a loss-of-coolant accident was carried out. The results provided a demonstration of the capability of even a degraded reactor pressure vessel material to withstand a severe accident providing an opportunity to benchmark and validate national practices in Europe, Japan and the US.

    AMES has provided a focal point for experts studying the critical issue of irradiation embrittlement of reactor pressure vessel steels and welds and for clustering diversely funded experimental R&D projects. Particular attention has been devoted to Russian reactor designs, with significant participation of experts from Eastern European countries.

    (1)Based on Communication COM (2002) 606, published on 6 November 2002

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