Consultation process open also to public outside of France until end March– still some questions remaining
Jan Haverkamp, 27 February 2019
In Europe, we are currently in an active debate about how the public should be involved in decisions around the extension of the lifetime of ageing nuclear power reactors beyond the their initial technical lifetime of 30 or 40 years: There are court cases on the issue in Belgium and the Netherlands; the European Court of Justice assesses questions from the Belgian High Court; the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee recently found the Netherlands in non-compliance with the Aarhus Convention for not organising public participation; Ukraine has been found in non-compliance with the Espoo Convention; and the Espoo Convention parties are deliberating in a special ad-hoc working group.
European citizens are now invited to give their views on the lifetime extension of France’s fleet of 900 MW reactors. In the coming years, each of these reactors will reach the age of 40 years. Comments can be given via the (French language) website: https://concertation.suretenucleaire.fr/projects
Because of the wider European debate, it is interesting to see what the nation with the most nuclear reactors in Europe is doing in this respect. Most of France’s nuclear fleet of 58 reactors was built in a relative short time period in the 1970s and 1980s and the entire fleet is now facing the end of its initial technical lifetime of 40 years. Under the obligations of the Aarhus Convention, any decision to prolong their lifetime should be preceded by meaningful public participation concerning environmental issues – this was recently confirmed during the case of the Dutch nuclear power station Borssele. The primary advisor to the European Court of Justice, advocate general Juliane Kokott came in the end of last year to the conclusion that the Espoo Convention and the EU EIA Directive in conjunction with the Aarhus Convention oblige Belgium to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the life-time extension of the Doel 1 and 2 nuclear reactors. The European Court is expected to come with its response later this year, and it is widely expected that this verdict will also make an EIA necessary for France’s fleet.
In a tradition of transparency, followed since 2005, the French nuclear regulator ASN (Autorité de sûreté nucléaire) has decided to organise a public consultation on the lifetime extension of nuclear reactors beyond 40 years in two stages: first a general consultation per group of reactor designs, followed by a reactor specific consultation with more detail. The first group is that of the 900 MW reactors, and the NPP Tricastin will be the first detailed case to follow.
ASN has asked the High Commission for Transparency and Information Concerning Nuclear Safety (Haute Commission pour la Transparance et l’Information sur la Sécurité Nucléaire – HCTISN) to organise the consultation on the 900 MW reactors, in order to guarantee independence. This consultation consists of an on-line part (only in French) where people can react on statements (and information) from EdF as well as add their own points of view. Regional hearings will also be held in the entire country with a focus on areas around these reactors (also only in French). The consultation is overseen by two from HCTISN independent guarantors, Marianne Azario and Isabelle Barthe, who can be reached by email garantes.concertation@sûreténucléaire.fr for any questions relating to the process of consultation. The local CLI’s – local information committees – play a crucial role in implementation.
It is clear that there are some fundamental weaknesses in this consultation set-up. It concentrates only on technical safety criteria and does not include a full environmental impact assessment as required under Espoo and the EIA Directive. France is one of the countries that vehemently tries to undermine this obligation within the Espoo Convention. It also does not provide all available environmental information for public scrutiny, as required under the Aarhus Convention, and therefore makes the whole process vulnerable for legal challenge.
Nuclear Transparency Watch is of the opinion, that on the basis of the Espoo and Aarhus Conventions and the EU SEA and EIA Directives, which are all implemented in French law, a Strategic Environmental Assessment should be an integral part of the general consultation, and a detail EIA of the following project procedure. This is, because the information and viewpoints gathered in these procedures will deliver crucial information to be used for the risk perception of the nuclear regulator. It will provide environmental, social and economic justification for or against longer lifetimes not only for the nuclear regulator, but also other political decision-makers involved, including decision-makers within the utility EdF.
At this moment, SEA and EIA procedures can still be included in the process. If this does not happen, the entire legitimacy of the public participation exercise will likely be challenged on the basis of lack of meeting international obligations.
Another important issue is the inclusion of viewpoints from outside of France. Many of France’s nuclear power plants are near borders, but even those in-land can have impacts far beyond France in case of a severe accident with emissions of radioactive content. Nuclear Transparency Watch member Brigitte Artmann asked the HCTISN whether the consultation is open to citizens of other countries. In its response, the HCTISN made clear that this is indeed the case and its consultation website also has an extensive explanation of the process in English, as well as a link to a 20 page English executive summary of the basic information delivered (the so-called Fulfilment Report).
For the rest, more detail information is only available in French and participation is only possible in the French language.
Nuclear Transparency Watch is of the opinion that that is not sufficient. With its 1970s choice for large scale development of nuclear power, France also took on itself the responsibility for all potential impacts, also those outside of France. Availability of material only in French is insufficient, but especially a possibility to submit viewpoints in other large European languages (at least English, German and Spanish) should be possible. By not giving that opportunity, the public consultation process does not fulfil the minimum criteria of non-discrimination in the Aarhus Convention and the obligation under the Espoo Convention to give equivalent access to public participation procedures for citizens in potentially impacted countries.
Nuclear Transparency Watch calls upon its members and others in civil society to participate in this consultation, while making clear that there should be broader possibilities under the obligations under Aarhus, Espoo, European and indeed French law.