21st Feb 2019

Debate on nuclear energy rekindles in parts of Europe

  • Lithuanian reactor: The Chernobyl effect and the Fukushima effect have come and gone (Photo: wikipedia)

The role of nuclear energy has returned to the centre of the political debate in various corners of Europe.

Two nations are discussing their reliance on nuclear energy this week: one whether to expand it, the other whether to decrease it. A third was given the go-ahead for a new nuclear power plant last week.

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On Tuesday (14 October) the Finnish parliament will discuss the plan for a new nuclear facility, while the French parliament will vote on an energy package that includes scaling back the country's reliance on nuclear energy from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025.

And last week came the European Commission's approval of a British plan for a nuclear power plant. The plant should, from 2023 onwards, provide 7 percent of the United Kingdom's electricity. Last Wednesday (8 October), competition commissioner Almunia announced that British help for the scheme did not constitute illegal state aid.

Environmentalists fear that the approval of the British plan will set a precedent, encouraging other European countries to subsidise nuclear plants too.

“That would be the new start for nuclear energy in Europe”, Austrian Green MEP Michel Reimon told EUobserver.

But regardless of state subsidies, nuclear energy is and looks to remain an important energy source for a substantial part of the EU.

Exactly half of the 28 member states of the European Union have nuclear power plants, which produce 14 percent of the energy consumed in the bloc. Nuclear energy is the source for around one-third of the EU's electricity.

In France, where nuclear energy is not a controversial issue, it accounts for about three quarters of the country's electricity supply.

After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, several European nations decided to reduce their reliance on nuclear plants or abandon construction plans for new ones.

Germany decided to phase out all nuclear power plants by 2022. Switzerland, not an EU member, decided to cancel plans for new plants and to phase out nuclear power by 2034.

A plan to revive nuclear energy in Italy was struck down almost unanimously: 94 percent of voters opposed nuclear power in a referendum held three months after Fukushima (Italy had used nuclear power plants from the 1960s until 1990, when they were closed in the wake of public antipathy towards nuclear energy after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine).

Meanwhile, in 2012, the Belgian government led by prime minster Elio di Rupo decided that the country should be nuclear-free by 2025. The first step would be to close two reactors in the northern Belgian town of Doel in 2015.

The closure will be somewhat delayed, however. Belgium faces a possible energy shortage this winter - ironically because three other nuclear reactors had to be temporarily closed.

The new centre-right government has decided that Doel 1 and 2 will remain open until at least March 31, 2015 and March 31, 2016, respectively. The government is also considering keeping them open until 2025. In their coalition agreement, released last Thursday (9 October) they vow to take a decision before the end of this year.

But now that more than three and a half years have passed since the Fukushima accident, public opposition to nuclear energy is waning, MEP Reimon said.

“After Fukushima, the anti-nuclear sentiment was very strong”, said Reimon. “Now, with some time since then, it's less strong. This is how public opinion works.”

Directly after the Chernobyl accident 1986, opposition to nuclear energy also increased. One year later, the number of opponents decreased again (although it was still higher than before the nuclear disaster).

No consensus

It is difficult to speak of a “European attitude” towards nuclear energy.

The most recent EU-wide poll by the European Commission (conducted five years ago) showed big disparities among nation states.

At the low end, only 29 percent of Austrian respondents said they agreed that nuclear energy helps to limit climate change, while among the Swedes, 73 percent agreed with that statement.

For Reimon, his anti-nuclear position has double roots. Not only is he a member of the Greens, but he is also Austrian. Austria has a long anti-nuclear tradition that dates back to 1978, when Austrians narrowly voted against nuclear power in a referendum.

Cementing this stance, Austria has said it will take the commission to court for its decision to allow the UK its subsidy of the nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.

The Austrian chancellor and vice-chancellor are a social-democrat and a conservative, respectively, but anti-nuclear views in Austria are held from left to right, Reimon said.

“You could not be in a high political position in Austria and support nuclear energy”, said Reimon.

Public opinion on the matter varies throughout the continent and has cultural and historic roots.

And while in Finland the Green party withdrew from prime minister Alexander Stubb's government in September because it opposed the approval for a new nuclear plant on environmental grounds, the fact that it will be built by a Russian state-owned company is an equally important factor for many who are opposed to it.

In Germany, the phase-out of nuclear energy has to be seen in the context of the influential anti-nuclear movement which dates back to the early seventies.

And the fact that the country has had a strong Green party in parliament, which was part of the coalition government from 1998 to 2005. The Greens still have 63 seats in the 631-seat Bundestag. This helps keep environmental issues on chancellor Angela Merkel's political agenda.

In the UK, on the other hand, the Green party has only one member in the 650-seat House of Commons.

There is also something peculiar about the UK and its views towards nuclear energy. There was never a strong 'Fukushima effect' in the country, according to the article Public Attitudes to Nuclear Power and Climate Change in Britain Two Years after the Fukushima Accident from March 2013.

“The available evidence so far suggests that British attitudes towards nuclear have been largely unchanged in the wake of the Fukushima accident”, Wouter Poortinga from the Cardiff University wrote with three others.

In a phone conversation, Poortinga also noted a sharp distinction between attitudes in the UK and Germany. The professor of environmental psychology explains that the difference is partly due to framing of the nuclear debate.

“The British media reported very differently on Fukushima compared to the German media”, he said. In Germany the nuclear debate is "an old debate", already decided.

British media focused on the fact that tsunamis are not a risk to the UK and that domestic nuclear energy is "simply needed", both for fighting climate change and to have an amount of energy independence. Poortinga says some influential environmentalists in the UK see nuclear energy as a “lesser evil”.

British environmentalist George Monbiot is an important voice of that lesser evil argument.

Ten days after the Fukushima disaster, Monbiot wrote in the Guardian he has become pro-nuclear, because “the energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel.”

“In the seventies and eighties, if you were part of the environmental movement, you were automatically anti-nuclear. That changed in the nineties with climate change”, Poortinga said.

The CO2 line

With all the possible ecological problems that are associated with nuclear energy – the natural consequences of a disaster and the radioactive waste – it has one huge environmental advantage over fossil fuels. It hardly emits greenhouse gases, which pro-nuclear trade associations like to point out.

Nations are trying to reduce emissions of these gases to prevent global warming to exceed 2 degrees Celsius. Later in October, EU government leaders will decide how much emissions should be reduced by 2030.

Nuclear energy might help some countries to reach that target.

For Reimon however, nuclear is just as “evil” as fossil fuels. “An argument about if nuclear or coal is the bigger [problem] is wasted time”, he says. Reimon would prefer “zero” nuclear energy in Europe.

However, that is not something for the European institutions to decide.

The European Commission hopes the government leaders will decide that they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, but is “technology-neutral” on how that goal is achieved.

“It's for the member states to define their own mix”, said Humberto Delgado Rosa, director of mainstreaming adaptation and low carbon technology at the commission's climate action department.

“For some that will mean nuclear, for some that will mean no nuclear. For all that will mean more renewables and more energy efficiency.”

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