Op-ed: Phasing out nuclear power in Europe
M V Ramana
Belgium’s phase out decision is an extremely significant one and points to the dismal future of nuclear energy in Europe. Despite the nuclear industry’s strident claims about the necessity for nuclear power and promises of a nuclear renaissance, nuclear power is being phased out in Europe
Two weeks ago, Belgium became one more European country to decide to phase out nuclear energy. The bill, presented by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s cabinet and passed by both houses of Parliament, orders the shutting down of Belgium’s seven reactors after 40 years of use and bans the construction of new ones. The first reactors will be dismantled by February 2015, the last by 2025.
Belgium’s phase out decision is an extremely significant one and points to the dismal future of nuclear energy in Europe. Nuclear energy currently supplies about 60 per cent of Belgian electricity generation, the second highest in the world. But as elsewhere nuclear power has been uneconomical and electricity in Belgium is among the most expensive in Europe.
Economics, however, was not the primary reason for the phase out decision. The Belgian government’s bill focused on eliminating the risk of a disastrous accident at nuclear reactors and reducing the dangers of radioactive waste. Environmental sustainability considerations also played a part and, as part of the phase out, the government promised to invest in solar, wind, and other renewable energy resources.
Belgium is just the latest of five EU states planning to phase out nuclear energy. The others are Germany, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. Seven other countries — Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal — have either abandoned nuclear power or never established programmes. The only EU countries that officially maintain faith in nuclear power are France, Britain and Finland.
The most exceptional of these is Finland, the one EU country that has authorised construction of a nuclear reactor in recent years. The Finnish decision was largely based on not wanting to be dependent on Russia for energy imports. Due to its legacy as a country adjacent to and being somewhat dominated by the Soviet Union, there are strong public feelings about importing electricity from Russia. Finland’s 2001 decision to build a final repository for high-level nuclear waste probably also played an important role. By creating the illusion that the problem has been solved, this decision undermined one of the main objections to nuclear power.
Though the Finnish government decided to build a new nuclear reactor, its plans may not be realised so easily. The decision prompted financial firm Standard & Poor to revise its credit rating of the electric utility Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO), which intends to build the reactor, from “stable” to “negative”. TVO plans to raise most of the construction cost from international money markets and a poor credit rating is bound to have a negative effect.
Poor economics has also plagued the English nuclear industry. British Energy, which controls 9,600 MW of nuclear generating capacity and 2,000MW of coal-fired energy, announced last month that it had lost £337 millions in the past six months. It continues to lose £2 million a day due to lower wholesale electricity prices. Last September the company was forced to seek a £650 million bailout from the UK government, but the legality of this subsidy has been challenged on the grounds that it violates European Union criteria. Despite such government support, there are no plans for new nuclear reactor construction. The reference forecast scenario of the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook 2002 predicts that this will be the case till at least 2020.
With most EU countries abandoning nuclear energy, the French are getting more isolated. France still has the highest percentage of nuclear generated electricity in the world (about 80 per cent) and the French nuclear lobby is extremely strong. But, as the Annie Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research points out, since the French government started investigating possible sites for storing nuclear waste, the public has become concerned about the management of nuclear waste. This in turn has led to a debate about the future of French nuclear power.
One consequence of this debate has been a reassessment of reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium. In July 2000, the Charpin report commissioned by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin found that reprocessing and the use of so-called MOX fuel that contains plutonium are uneconomical and will remain so for the foreseeable future. (An English summary is available at: http://www.ieer.org/sdafiles/vol_9/9-2/charpin.html) The report also concluded that reprocessing does little to reduce the burden of long-lived nuclear waste. Being official, it used only data furnished by the nuclear industry. The true costs would be even higher since the French government has a long history of massively subsidising the nuclear industry.
The French nuclear programme has also suffered other setbacks. Since 1991 no new reactors have been ordered. All of the latest N-4 series of reactors have been plagued with problems. Preparatory work at Le Carnet for a prototype of the European Pressurized Water reactor was stopped in 1997. (Details can be found at the World Information Service on Energy website at www.antenna.nl/wise) French plans for fast breeder reactors have come crashing down with the dismal performance and early closing of the Superphenix reactor.
Despite the nuclear industry’s strident claims about the necessity for nuclear power and promises of a nuclear renaissance, nuclear power is being phased out in Europe. Three concerns have largely fuelled opposition: poor economics, the dangers of nuclear reactor accidents and the public health risks from nuclear waste that takes tens of thousands of years to decay to safety. A fourth has been the intimate connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. All of these concerns are not specific to Europe and should guide the future of nuclear energy everywhere.
Unfortunately, Indian and Pakistani officials do not appear to have learnt these lessons. In his Hind Swaraj Mahatma Gandhi made a remarkably prescient observation: “And it is worthy of note that the systems which the Europeans have discarded are the systems in vogue among us. Their learned men continually make changes. We ignorantly adhere to their cast off systems.” Even after half a century of independence, the statement still rings true.
M V Ramana is a physicist and research staff member at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security