New environmental guidelines adopted for extending lifetime of nuclear power plants

Steam rises from a nuclear power station next to an old windmill on the River Scheldt in Doel, Belgium, September, 2019. It is one of a number of power plants where governments are seeking a lifetime extension. (Keystone/ AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The world’s first generation of nuclear power plants are getting dangerously old. Although fewer reactors are being built, an increasing number of countries are looking to extend their lifetime beyond what they had originally been designed for three or four decades ago.

It’s a decision that has environmental as well as safety implications, not only for their own population but for neighbouring countries as well.  But until recently there was no guidance in place for countries seeking lifetime extensions that set out how they should consult with their neighbours and ensure these projects would not harm the environment.

The Espoo Convention, a United Nations convention which came into force in 1997, helped to set some ground rules at the early planning stage.  However, it did not specify what needed to be done should countries want to keep reactors running.

This changed last week after parties to the Convention (formally known as the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context) adopted new guidelines, which, given the political powers at play, was hailed as a victory by representatives involved.

“The differing interests and conflicting positions at stake made the negotiations very challenging and some time back it was not even sure this guidance would be adopted because it was so difficult to come to a consensus,” Tea Aulavuo, secretary to the convention, told Geneva Solutions.

“So we can consider the endorsement of guidance last week after three and a half years of intensive work a great achievement,” she added.

Why it matters. Adopted by 45 states in the Finnish town of Espoo in 1991, the convention obliges countries to carry out a so-called environmental impact assessment (EIA) if there is a risk that a project could impact neighbouring countries. It applies not just to nuclear reactors but other major projects such as dams, motorways, or pipelines.

“The origins of the Convention date back to the 1980s. At that time, countries from both the eastern and western bloc were starting to show a growing desire for cooperation to tackle common challenges across borders, such as air and water pollution,” said Olga Algayerova, UNECE’s executive-secretary in a blog post published following the meeting.

Crucially, the public also has the right to be consulted.  Algayerova added:  “Aside from protecting the environment, it has helped countries improve their environmental governance, through enhanced transparency and consultation of authorities and the public in planning and decision-making.”

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been increasingly playing the role of watchdogs in monitoring how governments are applying the convention and raising the alarm when they step out of line.

The Implementation Committee, the convention’s compensation body, is reviewing possible cases of non-compliance by seven parties regarding the planned lifetime extension of some 60 units at some 17 nuclear power plants, Aulavuo said.  Many of these have been in limbo, waiting for the guidelines to be adopted before they could be properly reviewed.

Responding to news of the new guidelines, Jan Haverkamp, a senior expert on nuclear energy and energy policy at Greenpeace, said the organisation is  “happy there is a guidance, but is strongly aware that the real work only now starts for the Implementation Committee of the Espoo Convention, which has already under consideration the cases of several dozens of nuclear lifetime extensions that took place without a proper EIA having been carried out”.

“As such, this guidance together with the Aarhus Convention and the EU Habitat and EIA Directives leave no doubt that major decisions changing the situation of nuclear installations need to be informed by a valid EIA with public participation,” he told Geneva Solutions.  Greenpeace is involved in court procedures in France and the Netherlands and supporting other NGOs in the Czech Republic.

Looking beyond retirement.  The majority of the world’s nuclear reactors have been running for between 31 to 40 years, giving them a mean age of 30.7 years, according to Statista.  In Europe, home to some of the world’s old nuclear power plants, around 100 reactors are due to reach the end of their original lifespan in the coming 10 years.

Several countries are currently carrying out environmental impact assessments under the convention for their reactors, including Belgium (for Doel 1 and 2), Ukraine (for Rivne 1 and 2), Finland (for Loviisa 1 and 2) and Slovenia.

The cross-border climate risks of nuclear power plants haven’t always been at the forefront of discussions, Aulavuo told Geneva Solutions: “The nuclear sector obviously was a clear advocate that projects would be made safe. However, the safety assessment of the plant does not take into account all the environmental aspects, including, for example, the climate change-induced impacts to the environment surrounding the plant.”

“We had to make clear that this wasn’t a nuclear vs. anti-nuclear discussion. Countries have a sovereign right to decide whether or not to include nuclear energy into their own energy mix. The purpose of the Convention, when applicable, is to ensure that countries’ decisions to extend the lifetime of a plant are based on sufficient information on the possible environmental impacts and any concerns that other countries and their public may have are addressed are taken into account.”