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Nuclear: Europe Speaks With Forked Tongue

Posted in Europe,Nuclear by Cheryl Morgan on the June 23rd, 2011

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, most people have been predicting the demise of the nuclear power industry. Recent events appear to have proved that true, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel choosing to shut 7 of her country’s older plants, and promising an exit from nuclear generation by 2022. Switzerland’s cabinet has voted to follow suit. This article by John Daly on, titled “Nuclear Twilight in Europe”, is typical of the sort of media reaction we have seen.

Not every European leader agrees with the German line. In Italy Silvio Berlusconi was keen to press ahead with new nuclear build. Given his ability to win elections despite being mired in all sorts of scandals, you might have thought that the Italian Prime Minister would be unconcerned at being forced to fight a referendum on the subject, but Berlusconi was so afraid of the result that he put all his energy (and considerable media clout) into trying to keep the turnout below the 50% needed for the result to be legally binding. It didn’t work and, as The Guardian reported, well over 90% of the people who did vote were against nuclear power.

Some countries in Europe have always been more well-disposed towards nuclear. Sweden has 10 operating nuclear plants that supply over 40% of the country’s electricity. Following the Three Mile Island disaster a referendum voted to close all of the existing plants by 2010, but most of them are still operating and the Swedish parliament has voted to allow new nuclear build. That, of course, was before Fukushima. Also Vattenfall has had a particularly difficult time of late with the nuclear plants it operates in Germany, particularly Krümmel and Brunsbüttel. A recent International Atomic Energy Agency report listed Vattenfall as the worst nuclear operator in Europe.

Finland is one of the few countries in the world currently building a new nuclear power station. The Finnish people, however, are not happy, and haven’t been since well before Fukushima. The Olkiluoto 3 reactor is currently scheduled to come online 4 years late, and massively over budget.

The existence of nuclear power in an interconnected market means that even countries that are firmly opposed to nuclear make use of it. At today’s Economist UK Energy Summit, Director-General Philip Lowe noted that Austria gets 6% of its electricity from nuclear, despite public opinion being very much against it.

The one country in Europe that has always been a flag bearer for nuclear, however, is France. That support has continued, despite the problems in Japan. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster the European Union decided to undertake a program of stress tests on all nuclear power stations within its borders. No country was likely to vote against that, but pro-nuclear countries have been working behind the scenes to make sure that the tests were not as stringent as they might be. This lobbying has been led by France, the Czech Republic, and particularly by the UK.

Today the UK government released a list of 8 sites at which new nuclear build is planned to be authorized. In order to forestall public objections, all 8 plants will be built on brownfield sites adjacent to existing nuclear reactors. The plans still have to be voted on by parliament, but given that they were put in motion by the preceding Labour government, it will take a fairly substantial u-turn for the vote to fail. And if the UK government manages to get nuclear plants built despite the inevitable public opposition, other European governments might once again reconsider their options.

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