EU presents tougher nuclear safety rules amid concerns about aging plants, future of energy

The European Commission proposed tougher nuclear safety rules Thursday, amid international debate about the future of nuclear energy and how to secure aging plants.

Stress tests on European nuclear plants prompted by the 2011 disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant showed that almost all of them needed safety improvements. A report on those tests called for more consistency across the 27-nation EU in assessing and managing nuclear safety threats.

EU nuclear plants already undergo regular tests, but the proposed new rules would strengthen that. They include EU-wide safety reviews every six years, and the threat that the EU would send in inspectors if countries don't do enough to ensure nuclear safety. It would also include a system of peer reviews, allowing national governments to verify their neighbors' atomic plants.

Another new rule would require emergency response centers on the site of nuclear plants that would be protected against radioactivity, earthquakes and flooding.

The rules would need approval by the individual member states before coming into effect, not before next year.

Critics called the plan too modest; EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger called it "realistic."

France — which is the world's most nuclear energy-dependent country, with 58 reactors providing the majority of the country's electricity — has been resistant to some of the new rules, arguing that its own rules are tough enough.

Environmental group Greenpeace said the new rules do not do enough to address potential terrorist threats, or to increase the powers of nuclear regulators, which have been accused in the past of being too close to nuclear industry players.

Several European countries are rethinking their reliance on nuclear energy since the Fukushima accident.

Oettinger sought to stay out of that debate, saying in a statement, "It's up to member states to decide if they want to produce nuclear energy or not. The fact remains that there are 132 nuclear reactors in operation in Europe today. Our task at the Commission is to make sure that safety is given the utmost priority in every single one of them."

After last year's stress tests to gauge nuclear reactors' ability to withstand accidents and natural disaster, the commission said the costs of needed improvements to EU reactors could run as high as 25 billion euros ($32 billion) over the coming years.