Thursday, March 8, 2012

The European Reaction to Fukushima


By Grant Smith

Energy policy in the United States is more a political game than a serious public discussion.  The newest incarnation of energy policy-by-advertising-campaigns is the Clean Energy Standard, supported by the President and various members of Congress. 

You really have to suspend reality once you head down the CES route.  The premise is that we need all energy technologies to meet our electric demand, regardless of risk to the public pocketbook or to the public health.  It includes the oxymoron of clean coal and cheap, safe nuclear power. There is simply no way that coal and nuclear power can deliver a sustainable economy or a healthy population.

While US policymakers chase after the politically expedient CES, the European Union, the largest economy in the world, has been seriously working towards a sustainable electric grid.  The EU adopted a resolution that by 2020 all new buildings have to be zero energy buildings (i.e. use as much energy as they generate).  It has also set specific targets for renewable energy.  The European Parliament recognized in 2007 the “Third Industrial Revolution” (the confluence of telecommunications technology, renewable technology, and energy efficiency) as “the long-term economic vision and road map for the European Union.” (Rifkin, 2011)  This is not to say that there are no differences of opinion among European governments, but US policymakers, all from the same country, can’t even agree what day it is.  And there is no serious public discourse on how to move forward.  

Fukushima and Chernobyl proved two things.  Nuclear power can never be “safe”, and one accident can have worldwide negative and lasting impacts.  That is, nuclear fallout from meltdowns does not stop at the border.   

Despite general agreement of a strategic approach to energy policy, the reaction of European governments to the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima is varied, ranging from decisively moving away from nuclear power altogether to ensuring the safety of existing plants while adhering to current plans for expansion or holding steady.  The public, however, is not consistently in agreement with governments that support nuclear power. 

A decisive blow came to the nuclear industry when the conservative Merkel government in Germany, the EU’s strongest economy, announced the phase-out of nuclear power within a decade.  Merkel’s decision was, in part, influenced by an ethics commission that was formed after Fukushima.  The commission noted that the phase-out of nuclear power presented an opportunity for the economy by growing the renewables and efficiency sector.  Other contributing factors appear to have been massive demonstrations against nuclear power and the Chancellor’s party losing in regional elections in the aftermath of Fukushima.  The Merkel government had weakened the previous government’s attempt to phase out nuclear power.  Siemens, a German company, also announced it would withdrawal from nuclear investment.

Switzerland and Italy were the other two European countries to react strategically against nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima.  Italy has been toying with restarting nuclear power for some time.  However, a national referendum in June put an end to those aspirations.  94% of Italians shot down the government’s plans for new construction.  Switzerland stopped the licensing process for three new reactors and announced plans to phase out nuclear power by 2034.

The non-nuclear countries of Austria, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and Portugal issued a declaration in May calling for stringent safety measures at nuclear power plants now and transitioning from both nuclear power and fossil fuels.  The declaration found that nuclear power is incompatible with sustainable development and with effectively addressing climate change.

The governments of France and England remain staunch supporters of nuclear power.   The British government issued its “Final Fukushima Report” in October 2011 stating that there’s no reason to temporarily shut down any plants for safety reasons.  The government is looking at a few sites for new construction.  President Sarkozy views a nuclear phase-out as impossible.  However, 51% of French citizens, according to a June poll, want nuclear power phased out within 25 to 30 years and 19% want a rapid phase out.  A majority of the English are somewhat or strongly opposed to nuclear power as well.  An international poll taken in June shows 51% in the UK against nuclear power.  According to the same survey, 86% of the French and 80% of the English do not view nuclear power as a viable long term option.

The Fukushima incident has sparked a debate.  The tenor of the debate in Europe is more towards the do-we-really-want-nuclear-power than the how-do-we make-this-work end of the spectrum.  Some countries continue to hitch their energy futures to the nuclear bandwagon. However many countries including the EU’s strongest economy have made a decisive move away from nuclear power.  Public opinion is shifting in opposition and there is little to no support for nuclear power as a long-term option. 

Grant Smith is a senior energy policy analyst to the Civil Society Institute and former executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, where he worked for 29 years.
Copyright © American Forum. 2/12.