Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Will Japan disaster force nuclear rethink in Europe?

Europe is on edge today as the world waits for the outcome of the Japanese nuclear accidents following Friday's earthquake. EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger is today holding emergency closed-door meetings with national nuclear safety regulators. Meanwhile across Europe countries are falling over themselves to reassure a jittery public over the safety of nuclear power plants. In Germany Angela Merkel has ordered safety checks of all of the country's plants. Austria called for such checks to be carried out across the EU, and the two main political groups in the European parliament backed that call. Spain and Portugal, both under Socialist governments, yesterday called for the phase-out of nuclear energy in Europe.

All of this is in response to the unfolding crisis revolving around several nuclear power plants in Japan that were damaged during the devastating earthquake and tsunami there on Friday. Yesterday a third explosion was seen at the Fukushima power plant, the most serious one so far. The government says to date the amount of radiation leaked into the atmosphere is not dangerous to humans outside of the evacuated 20km radius. But right now everyone is waiting to see if this ends up being a minor Three Mile Island type incident or, in the worst case scenario, another Chernobyl.

But even if the danger is in the end contained, the political effects of this will be serious. In the United States, although disaster was narrowly averted during the Three Mile Island crisis, it killed the nuclear industry for decades, effectively putting a halt to new construction. Investors seem to be betting that this is going to happen again. Yesterday traders were frantically pulling out of uranium stocks, betting that this incident is going to kill new nuclear construction. They moved that money into stocks in renewable energy companies like First Solar and into fossil fuels. The price of carbon in the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme rose significantly yesterday.

But despite all the panic, yesterday the UK, France and Italy called for calm. France has the most keen interest in keeping fears at bay during this crisis, since it is one of the largest users of nuclear energy in the world. The UK ranks second in Europe in its use of nuclear power. And Italy has just started building a nuclear program.

The nuclear situation in Europe varies widely because public attitudes toward the technology have been so divergent in different countries. Fourteen EU member states currently use nuclear energy, and there are 150 plants within the bloc. In Germany the public has for decades been overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear and nuclear plants have been being phased out over the past three decades. While in France, there has ben no such public revulsion with the technology and France is today one of the least-dependent EU countries when it comes to importation of fossil fuels because of its wide use of nuclear. The UK has seen a moderate effort to phase out nuclear.

The climate change situation was starting to change that thinking, with public attitudes starting to shift back in favour of nuclear because it is a clean source of energy that does not produce greenhouse gas emissions and can increase energy independence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been working to overturn the moratorium on nuclear power. Yesterday she announced a three-month suspension of this effort while all the facts about the Japan incident are gathered, showing how sensitive this issue still is in Germany.

If this incident does indeed cause the public to once again turn against nuclear the biggest loser in Europe would be France, which has been actively pushing the technology as a clean, carbon-neutral source of energy for the EU. But it may be that despite the accident in Japan, the public will remain more concerned about the looming spectre of climate change than the remote potential for a nuclear accident. After all, there are few areas in Europe at risk of an earthquake, mostly limited to the Mediterranean. Then again, the Japan incident may serve to remind people that despite the best laid plans of mice and men, accidents happen.


Karel said...

hope not ...

Chris said...

When Europe moves to an area of major fault lines (I have felt an earthquake in Brussels) then maybe reconsider, but until then...security of supply is more important.

Tom said...

It doesn't happen often but I need to agree with Chris on that one :)
Energy supply is more important than consider risks which will never exist.

I would only add the comment that they should think about the coastal lines as well. Some areas ...(notably Holland and the Belgian coast) are on a very low terrain, so in case of any water disaster, nuclear plants are better off being built on higher terrain.

Peter said...

Only if we listen to that cretan / expert on BBC News 24 who, despite another reporter saying nobody knows what state reactors are in, knows absolutely, knows how many will die, knows the French are all going to take over the world, and knows how to trim a very fine beard.

Frank said...

It is possible to cater for Europe's needs for energy without building new nuclear power stations. If people actually stop and think about the amount of money we (the taxpayer) pump into nuclear power and the subsidies the industry receives... just to operate (and that's even before you look at the cost of nuclear waste disposal) then people might think differently. Investing in nuclear now will mean that we are tied to that technology for the next 40-50 years and this will prevent the take-up of better, less costly technologies that are truly sustainable. Why should we rely on a technology that poses the risk of radiating massive amounts of people with the cancers and birth defects that that will cause? There are many ways for Europe to ensure its future needs for a low-carbon energy supply without nuclear and the beginning of the answer lies with reducing our demand for energy in the first place.

Tom said...

@Frank: that might be true for countries as Germany and France, but not in Belgium. Belgium does not have enough natural sources to produce electricity so we would have to buy energy elsewhere. That would cost us as much money as keeping o...ur nuclear plants.
Also, nuclear energy is much less polluting than other termal power plants, for example cole-fired or biomass-fuelled power plants.
We don't have the natural resources to put a water turbine, and we are already putting as much wind turbines as we can all over the place.