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European Union: Response to Catastrophic Events in Japan

(Mar. 31, 2011) In the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, the European Union set in motion a number of measures in an effort to assist the Japanese government to deal with the unfolding crisis. Following a request for assistance on March 15, 2011, by Japan, a number of EU Member States initially responded individually. In order to better coordinate the humanitarian relief assistance offered by the EU Members, the European Commission mobilized the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM), which is designed to deal with natural and man-made disasters, either within the EU borders or around the globe. The CPM responded to immediate needs for blankets, water bottles, and water purification equipment, and a humanitarian expert was dispatched to join the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) mission to Japan. Moreover, the EU delegation in Tokyo is closely monitoring the situation in Japan. (Press Release, The European Union's Response to the Earthquake and Nuclear Plant Situation in Japan [Update: 16 March], MEMO/11/177, EUROPA (Mar. 16, 2011).)

The nuclear disaster in Japan struck a chord across the EU, which is host to 143 nuclear power stations. Immediately, the European Commission became engaged, and it intends to begin developing general standards for stress tests that all power plants will undergo during the second half of this year.

Nuclear safety was also on the top of the agenda on March 15-16, 2011, in the European Parliament's Committee on Energy and Environment, where the Energy Commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, made presentations. Overall, the EU parliamentarians were supportive of stress tests, while Carl Schlyter from the Swedish Greens party expressed the hope that “they include the whole production chain, e.g. transport, waste treatment and plant security.” The issue of updating the Euratom Treaty was also raised during the debate. (Press Release, Stress Tests for Europe's Atomic Power Plants After Nuclear Scare in Japan, EUROPA (Mar. 17, 2011).) The Euratom Treaty, which was signed in 1957, created the European Atomic Energy Community, designed to coordinate research programs on the peaceful use of nuclear energy in the original signatory Member States and to develop safety standards.

On March 21, 2011, the EU energy ministers convened in Brussels to discuss a number of critical issues, including the future of reactors that fail the tests. They discussed several assessment criteria, including seismic and flood risks, technical design, age, and type of power plants, as well as emergency procedures, especially in case of terrorist attacks. No agreement was reached as to how to handle those reactors that did not pass the tests. Another issue raised was the voluntary participation in the testing by countries with nuclear plants in their territories. On this point, the Energy Commissioner emphasized the need not to have any illusions, since not every country will come forward to participate in the tests. He expressed optimism that the Nuclear Safety Directive adopted by the EU in 2009 will be transposed into domestic law by all the EU members by the end of 2011. (Stressed-Out Nuclear Plants Face Uncertain Fate, EURACTIV (Mar. 22, 2011).)