Are you sure?

Should Europe abandon nuclear energy after Fukushima?

Germany’s close-to-business government has made a 180-degree turnaround by coming out against nuclear energy after Fukushima. Why are other countries seemingly not following Berlin?

Since the tragedy of Fukushima I have been pondering whether the Finnish people, or the Swedes, the French, the Swiss, the Czechs, the Russians, the Chinese, the South Africans, the Turks – all of these folks, including their governments and leading scientists, are fools or simply just gamblers. Whether they are really stupid and ignorant of the fact that potential disasters are hiding in each of their nuclear plants. Or are they simply cynics? Or masochists and/or sadists, who like to toy with their own lives and the fate of their children? Is that the reason why they do not follow the suit of the Germans?

Of course, I have been observing the Germans, too: what their response to Fukushima has been. Germany’s Angela Merkel and her close-to-business leading elite, when getting the horrible news from Japan, first decided on a three-month suspension of older nuclear reactors in the country, saying a review of nuclear policy must be conducted. Then, a few weeks later – after voters ousted the Christian Democrats and knocked out Merkel’s junior partners, the national liberal FDP, in the conservative stronghold of Baden-Württemberg, where the CDU have been governing since 1953 – both the CDU and the FDP suddenly became the number one opponents of nuclear power. It’s been a turnaround of 180 degrees – from their side. The suspected truth behind it is that they are trying to avoid future (political) disasters by trying to exploit the general anti-atomic sentiments of the nation due to a real-life (and really tragic) disaster.

I understand the Germans, their good intentions and their responsible way of thinking about questions like peace or war, sustainable economic growth, etc. But concerning their gigantic angst toward everything which starts with the word nuclear, I doubt that they know exactly what they are fearing. Why, in this post-Fukushima era, do the most dynamic countries of the developing world and some of the most successful nations of Europe have a totally different way of looking at nuclear energy? Why is Turkey’s environment minister, or the prime minister of the Czech Republic, or even of Sweden, still stressing the very necessity of holding and even building new reactors? Why are Finland and China and Switzerland continuing their atomic programs? Why has the new head of Russia’s nuclear authority recently said that “it is obvious that, in terms of knowledge and specialist skills, the development of all new kinds of energy is linked to the development of the nuclear one”?

Are they fools or gamblers? I do not think so.

They are, of course, fully aware of the undeniable fact: an exceptional tragedy happened. An earthquake of monumental dimensions, combined with a tsunami which caused fatal defects in a nuclear plant. But, they also know that nuclear power is safe, clean and relatively cheap. Even after Fukushima, after Chernobyl, after Pennsylvania – it still is. All these incidents are very sporadic compared to those which occur in fossil fuel industries, coal mines and gas pipelines. Fossil is polluting the air, causing CO2 emissions of huge proportions.

They also know that no other large source of energy is as renewable as nuclear. Most reactors have a lifespan of 40 years and can be easily extended for 20 more years. Uranium is available in abundance in the crust of the Earth, with almost inexhaustible deposits in Canada, Australia, Russia and South Africa. The biggest fear associated with atomic power, the fear of radiation, can be overcome by educating people and not by fomenting hysteria mainly through uneducated journalists and vote-hunting politicians.

They also see clearly that there is a danger of complacency when talking about alternative fuels. Solar power and wind energy are nothing more than a highly subsidized energy supplement. And the problem of how to store such energy has barely been broached. So, have those anti-atomic, pro-alternative activists inside and outside of governments ever responded to the question: what is the ecological price of these green energies expected to be? Just one example: wind turbines are unbelievably loud, and they have proven to have killed birds. A series of new scientific studies hint at the uncalculated effects on Mother Nature that different kinds of green energy may cause.

The Green recipe for withdrawing from nuclear energy involves building more and bigger turbines and placing them closer to cities. Plus, in a world without nuclear energy, the energy bill of each player of the economy would rise to heights never seen before. Why has taking this risk for the whole economy just started to boom in Germany for the sake of public opinion?

The tragedy of Japan has many lessons, but I doubt that one of them is to completely abandon atomic energy. We should rather learn to live with it.


Péter Zentai is journalist and a former bureau chief of Hungarian Radio in Berlin.