Europe : adjusting its nuclear strategies

, by Jérémy Calohard, Translated by Ella Marot

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Europe : adjusting its nuclear strategies
The Philippsburg nuclear power plant, in Germany By Lothar Neumann, Gernsbach [1] (Karlsruhe:Bild:Philippsburg2.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Fukushima disaster following the tsunami that hit Japan has revived nuclear fear in Europe. The EU heads of State have since then voiced different opinions concerning the issue, which can be explained by past national choices. These divergences therefore call for a reinforced collaboration between Member States.

The reactions of the European heads of State these last days have displayed divergences in points of view. If Nicolas Sarkozy has stressed that “ruling out the nuclear was evidently out of the question”, Angela Merkel has, on the other hand, announced a moratorium concerning the prolongation of an atomic reactor’s ’life expectancy’.

Other countries have expressed their apprehension by taking measures to suspend some of their projects linked to nuclear energy; such was the case for Switzerland, Poland, and Italy. Austria, who had abandoned nuclear energy in 1978, asked for "’resistance tests’ to be carried out on nuclear power plants” throughout the European Union.

To this day, there are 144 operational reactors in the EU, distributed among 16 Member States. They produce almost a third of the electricity and 15% of the overall energy consumed in Europe. France’s dependence on nuclear energy is particularly strong: close to 80% of its electricity relies on it. On the other hand, hardly a quarter of Germany’s electricity depends on nuclear energy. The reason behind these figures is quite obvious: indeed, France is, by far, the most equipped European country when it comes to nuclear reactors: there were 59 of them by the end of 2009, against just 17 in Germany and 19 in Great Britain. As for Italy, after the Chernobyl catastrophe, the country rejected -by referendum- atomic energy altogether in 1987, and thus possesses no nuclear power stations whatsoever.

Different national strategies

The opinions voiced all over Europe are intrinsically linked to the nuclear industry’s role within each country. How can this contrasted situation be explained, especially between France and Germany?

Ever since the 1973 oil crisis, France has clearly asserted its preference for nuclear energy by carrying out General De Gaulle’s policies as a means to ensure its energy independence. On the other side of the Rhine, the German government has privileged, since the end of the Second World War, an ’energy mix’ based on coal and atomic energy.

Moreover, the 1986 Chernobyl accident marked a clear separation in nuclear perceptions on either side of the Rhine River. In Germany, this event reinforced the doubts that had been expressed in particular by environmental movements since the 1970s, which led Gerhard Schröder’s Red-Green coalition to sign a law ousting nuclear energy for 2020. In France, the weak mobilization from civil society against nuclear energy did not manage to find sufficient exposure on the political scene to follow in Germany’s footsteps.

However, Germany’s stance has been more nuanced recently. The increased prices of oil and gas have indeed shed a different light on atomic energy. During her 2009 electoral campaign, Angela Merkel had committed herself to coming back on her predecessor’s decision. However, this electoral proposal has been somewhat shaken by the Japanese crisis, which forces the chancellor to reconsider her position, as a regional ballot is looming and could be of considerable cost to her party.

Compared to Germany’s hesitations, France seems to show a certain assertiveness guaranteed by the considerable influence of lobbies, and also due to its dependence vis-à-vis atomic power. The French government has always adopted a firm stance on the subject, much to the dismay of ecological organisations. These had even left the negotiations’ table during a 2005 debate initiated by the government. Far from wishing to leave atomic power behind, France has in fact made it one of its industry’s national flagships. Even in the midst of the storm, Nicolas Sarkozy boasted that France was “the country whose nuclear sector was the most secure”. The recent crisis could, in fact, be an opportunity for the French industry, which advertises the merits of the EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) in terms of security. These past years, France has put in considerable zeal to promote nuclear energy as an “energy source with low carbon”, in a European effort to fight against global warming; this suggests it is improbable that the country will shift its long lasting positions concerning atomic energy.

What are the EU policies concerning atomic energy ?

There does not exist, to this day, a unique European policy in nuclear matter, as was indicated when instituting the European Community of Atomic Energy in 1957. Indeed, the Euratom treaty leaves each Member State free to develop a nuclear industry on its territory or, on the contrary, to turn to another form of energy if it so wish. This however, does not mean the European Commission does not have an opinion on the question: and this opinion is favourable to atomic energy.

With regard to its atomic security strategy, the Commission suggests adopting the latest technology for the construction of new power plants.

The commissioner in charge of climate, Connie Hedegaard, has estimated that “nuclear energy is a reality and will remain so for quite a while to come”, thus legitimising the French stance. Even though the EU strives to be a role-model on the international stage in the battle against climate change, most of its political leaders agree on the limited number of alternatives to nuclear power.

In Italy for instance, rejecting nuclear energy in 1987 did not enable the development of sustainable energy as much as it was expected, which resulted in an increased oil dependence.

For now, it is necessary to first and foremost concentrate on reinforcing the security of our functional power plants. Angela Merkel’s recent proposal evokes the idea of a “Franco-German initiative on nuclear security”. The German Chancellor thus wishes to harmonize the norms of nuclear security within the EU.

This proposal surely will not be to the liking of the ecologists, but at least it has the merit of inviting the European governments to concert more thoroughly on the subject, despite the highly contrasted opinions amidst the EU.

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