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Europe weighs the future of nuclear energy

Following the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, European countries are rethinking their approach to atomic energy.

Time is a tricky thing. The same period can feel completely different depending on what it refers to. In energy production, short-term means 30–50 years. In politics however, where one can plan ahead for four years at best, short-term can be just a matter of days. This probably accounts for the decision of the German government in late May to shut down all working nuclear power plants in the country by 2022. Why would a government otherwise reverse a decision, taken less than a year ago, extending the lifespan of its nuclear reactors by 12 years on average? The extension was unpopular in Germany even before the radioactive leaks at the Fukushima plant, but after it, thousands protested against nuclear power.

The German response to the Japanese catastrophe was – without doubt – political. It was not only Germany, though, that reversed earlier decisions. In Italy, where nuclear energy’s popularity has been low for a long time, ten new reactors were to be built that would have increased the share of nuclear energy in the country’s electricity mix to 25% by 2030. But after a recent poll and bowing to public pressure, the government scrapped those plans.

Recent European energy policy has not only been shaped by the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. “The economic recession and a smaller EU budget, the uprisings in North Africa and the related supply uncertainty in the region as well as energy market liberalization have all made an impact on it,” explained Edit Herczog, a Hungarian MEP who sits on the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy in the European Parliament.

However, Fukushima triggered stronger reactions than the other factors. In March, Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Energy, said the EU should abandon nuclear energy. He also proposed the introduction of a tax on nuclear energy use when addressing the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety committee of the European Parliament. Later, he pushed for stress tests within Europe to enhance the safety of existing plants. (see boxes) The German reaction to Fukushima, as well as Oettinger’s comments, were surprising as a complete omission of nuclear energy from the energy mix could have serious repercussions.

First, dependence on other energy sources would grow significantly. The proportion of oil and coal-based energy supplies, the use of which most countries in the EU are trying to cut back, would rise significantly. So would vulnerability of the Union towards suppliers.

Also, phasing out nuclear power plants entirely could destroy a country’s competitive edge. “In the energy market, those with technology and production are the decision makers,” Herczog pointed out. Should Europe chose to abandon this form of power generation, it would only promote China’s expansion in nuclear energy.

Leaving nuclear behind would be undesirable from a professional viewpoint as well. This is an extremely small industry with just a handful of highly specialized professionals. “Dismissing them would equal to wasting precious and rare expertise which is hard to replace,” Herczog said.

The reasons above do sound weighty, but are only one side of the argument. The other is the destruction and the far-reaching effects of Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. No government would dare to question that. Especially now that, according to a recent Ipsos study, support for nuclear energy versus other sources is at its lowest point ever; even coal is ahead of it.

Worldwide, 38% of people support nuclear energy for electricity production, a number that has dropped 16 percentage points since Fukushima. Also, 73% of people see nuclear power plants as temporary solutions. Interestingly, 71% of the Japanese still support this technology.

Those opposing the use of nuclear power argue that power plants can never be made completely safe – and they are likely right. So what could be the answer to the dilemma of supplying an energy-hungry EU safely and continuously?

One alternative – which is probably the most supported – is the enhanced use of renewable resources. The EU is already a huge fan: by 2020, it intends to draw 20% of its energy from renewables and 100% by 2050. However, even though solar energy ranks first in terms of public support (see chart) it is still a rather costly option.

Plan B could be to build nuclear power plants that are far safer. This should not pose a big challenge, as the next generation of power plants is designed to work with nature, not against it. They are called “walk-away safe” in nuclear language, that is, no human interaction is needed should something go wrong. These power plants are much safer – but also much more expensive. So in countries that have decided to continue to pursue nuclear energy production, such as Sweden – where last June the government reversed a 30-year-old policy of phasing out nuclear power plants and decided to replace existing plants with new ones –, it may be a solution.

“Nuclear energy has always had its supporters and opponents: and not even Fukushima has changed that,” said András Gyürk, a Hungarian MEP of the European People’s Party and member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy. “However, supporters have realized that no compromises should be allowed when it comes to safety.”

Hopefully, in the long-term, responsibility and not politics will decide the future of atomic energy.

Nuclear power plant stress tests methodology

Following the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, the countries of the European Union agreed to review the safety of their nuclear power plants. The tests started on June 1 and the results will be published early next year. The reviews, or stress tests, will test plants for a set of additional safety criteria besides existing ones.

The aim is to find out whether the safety margins used in the licensing of nuclear power plants are sufficient to cover unexpected events.

What will be assessed in the stress tests? Whether the nuclear power plant can withstand the effects of the following events:

1. Natural disasters: earthquakes, flooding, extreme cold, extreme heat, snow, ice, storms, tornadoes, heavy rain and other extreme natural events.

2. All man-made failures and actions: these accidents include: airplane crashes and explosions close to nuclear power plants, whether caused by a gas container or an oil tanker approaching the plant. Comparable damaging effects from terrorist attacks (airplane crash, explosives) are also covered.

3. Preventive and other terrorist and malevolent acts: Preventive measures for terrorist attacks – meaning all measures that should stop an attack from happening in the first place – will be dealt with separately, involving anti-terrorism experts and officials of ministries for national security.

Tests will be carried out at three levels:

1. Pre-Assessment: The plant operators have to fill in a stress test questionnaire, describing how the plant would react in different situations, and they must submit engineering studies.

2. National Report: The national regulator will check the credibility of the pre-assessments.

3. Peer Reviews: The national report of the regulator will be reviewed by other regulators within the European Nuclear Safety Regulators’ Group (ENSREG), which represents the 27 independent national authorities responsible for nuclear safety.

The results of the test will be made public by April 2012. Even though the findings of the report are not binding, and could not be enforced at an EU level, experts believe that public pressure could be strong enough to make governments review or close plants if necessary.