Tools for environmental protection: environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments

Transport routes, business parks, refineries, large-scale incineration plants ... constructing and operating infrastructure and industrial sites has a significant impact, directly or indirectly, on the environment. The competent authorities therefore have a duty to consider, at an early stage, how these schemes will affect people, flora and fauna, biodiversity, soil, water and ambient air. The aim is to avoid adverse impacts on the environment and protect public health. This means conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) or strategic environmental assessment (SEA) ahead of some planned projects or construction schemes.

So when is it necessary to make use of these environmental protection tools? This is regulated by Germany’s Act on the Assessment of Environmental Impacts (Gesetz über die Umweltverträglichkeitsprüfung – UVPG) and EU legislation, which set out the applicable criteria. At the end of the process, the authority responsible for approving the project must show to what extent the environmental impact assessment has been taken into account and measures needed to mitigate impacts have been built into the proposed scheme.

Environmental impact assessments for licensing procedures

The construction and operation of a hazardous waste incineration plant, for example, requires an environmental impact assessment, as does the dismantling of a nuclear power plant. Local residents and the relevant authorities are kept informed at every stage of the planning process and are consulted during decision-making. The aim is to achieve transparency, identify potentially negative impacts on people and the environment and ensure that mitigation measures are integrated into the further stages of project development. However, environmental impact assessments do not exert legally binding effect, so a negative EIA report cannot by itself stop a planned project from going ahead.

Strategic environmental assessments for infrastructure programmes

Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is another such tool. An SEA must be carried out in federal transport infrastructure planning, regional and area development planning, water-resource and waste management, air quality management and noise protection. Here too, the anticipated environmental impacts and alternative planning options are detailed and evaluated with the involvement of the competent authorities and the general public.

The Oeko-Institut’s expertise: transdisciplinary methods and a wealth of experience

The Oeko-Institut works in a similar way to a specialised agency: it provides support to the federal and state (Land) authorities which conduct environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments. The Oeko-Institut’s team of scientists, engineers and lawyers applies transdisciplinary working methods which have proved their worth over decades. They focus particularly on:

  • EIAs for the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear power plants and research reactors,
  • EIAs for on-site interim storage facilities and interim storage for spent fuel elements,
  • EIAs for residue management and on-site waste storage facilities,
  • EIAs for the expansion of a uranium enrichment facility,
  • Strategic Environmental Assessment of the National Programme for the safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste,
  • expert opinions on the transboundary environmental impacts of foreign-owned facilities in Germany.

Environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments consist of prescribed procedures which are performed by the Oeko-Institut’s experts as part of its core business. They include:

  • screening to establish whether or not an EIA or SEA is needed,
  • recommending the extent of issues to be considered in the assessment and the methodology to be used (scoping) and providing support for the project application conference,
  • verifying that documentation is complete and suitable for public consultation,
  • providing support for technical meetings,
  • reviewing and evaluating possible objections and expert opinions,
  • producing the environmental report as the basis for public participation in the SEA,
  • at the end of the EIA, drafting a synopsis and a recommendation for assessment by the authorities, generally including proposed conditions and advice on impact mitigation, and
  • supporting the authorities during public consultations.

The Oeko-Institut has access to a comprehensive network of highly skilled professionals and many years of experience in conducting stakeholder and public consultations, particularly on highly controversial projects such as the construction of interim storage facilities for radioactive waste. Legal restrictions may constrain precautionary environmental assessments. Nonetheless, the Oeko-Institut’s experts make use of any discretionary scope that may be available in order to maximise the protection afforded to people and the environment.

Environmental impact assessment – the case of nuclear power plant dismantling

A key challenge arising in connection with the phase-out of nuclear energy is the dismantling of nuclear power plants, which requires the assessment of a wide range of potential environmental impacts. In addition to the dismantling itself, it is often necessary to build and operate various new facilities, mainly for the conditioning and interim storage of radioactive waste. Whether in relation to noise, vibration, soil, air and water pollution or the release of ionising radiation, the Oeko-Institut’s experts identify the factors which are likely to impact on the environment. They then conduct qualitative and quantitative analyses, characterise the direct environmental impacts and, where appropriate, produce recommendations on mitigation.

Most nuclear power plants are located along large rivers in order to ensure an adequate supply of cooling water. Although they are generally sited away from industrial centres and major cities, there may be small clusters of housing in their immediate vicinity – perhaps just a few hundred metres away. There may also be natural features nearby, such as floodplain landscapes and protected areas designated under the European Union’s Habitats and Birds Directives. All the anticipated environmental impacts must be considered for these sites equally, taking into account their conservation status and specific impact mechanisms.

As regards the impacts of radiation, the studies and evaluations by the Oeko-Institut’s experts are based on the precautionary principle, which means that they start well below the dose limits set in the Radiation Protection Ordinance. This approach also reflects the fact that from a scientific perspective, it is impossible to set a minimum threshold level for radiation exposure.

What’s more, in many cases, special measures must be taken to protect birds from noise. However, there are no legal limits that should be complied with in order to provide this protection; instead, a case-by-case approach tends to be adopted, with studies for specific species of bird determining whether serious adverse impacts can be ruled out.

The experts also look at radioactive residues and their impacts on the environment. The question whether the rubble produced during dismantling is classed as radioactive or conventional waste is determined by the clearance values set in the Radiation Protection Ordinance, irrespective of any environmental impact assessment. These clearance values are intended to rule out immediate and long-term radiological risks to the general public.

In its provisions on radiation monitoring of demolition waste from nuclear power plants for clearance purposes, the Radiation Protection Ordinance states that the additional exposure, expressed as a de minimis dose, occurring for a member of the public may not exceed 10 μSv per year. A Sievert is the unit of measurement which quantifies the amount of radiation absorbed by human tissues. If these thresholds are not exceeded during dismantling, the impacts on the environment are no longer considered relevant, according to expert opinion. However, if threshold values are exceeded, further assessment of the relevant factors is required, along with advice on options for mitigating the environmental impacts.