Nuclear Fission: What is the Future of Nuclear Power in Europe?

What is the future of nuclear power in Europe in the wake of Fukushima? France, the global leader in the production of nuclear energy, is likely to stand by its extensive nuclear industry. Germany, on the other hand, is eliminating all nuclear power by 2022. In light of Fukushima and the EU’s CO2 reduction targets, which path will Europe choose?

In the 1950s, the United States attempted to solve the post-WWII nuclear dilemma by promoting and developing civilian nuclear power. Eisenhower spoke of ‘atoms for peace,’ and declared that nuclear technology would not be consecrated to the destruction of mankind, but to his welfare.

Image courtesy of Conxa Roda, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Yet almost sixty years later, it is clear that nuclear fission divides more than atoms.

The debate around nuclear power has intensified after March 2012’s Fukushima disaster, leading Germany to phase out its nuclear plants by 2022. France on the other hand, while aiming to reduce some of its huge reliance upon nuclear energy, is unlikely to ever totally abandon nuclear power.

As an energy source that emits practically no CO2, but puts the environment and humanity at risk of radioactive peril, nuclear power is simultaneously the environmentalist’s best friend and greatest fear. On the one hand, nuclear power enables states to reduce fossil fuel dependence and meet carbon emission standards. Yet the nuclear industry evokes apocalyptic images: the dead zone surrounding Chernobyl, the emergence of mutant radioactive butterflies after Fukushima, the threat of nuclear plants as a terrorist target. Governments, whose projects usually span a number of months if not years, have no way to ensure that radioactive nuclear waste will remain secure for thousands of years.

France and Germany, historic adversaries, form a Franco-German alliance at the core of the Eurozone. The strong partnership, however, is marked by a significant rift in opinion on the future role of nuclear power.

The nuclear power industry holds a central place in France: nuclear power currently provides over 75% of French electricity. France began to invest massively in its nuclear industry in the 1970s following the OPEC oil shocks in order to increase its energy independence. In reaction to climate change, the pro-nuclear and environmentalist sectors of society formed an alliance to counter CO2 emissions from oil, gas and coal.

Though current French president François Hollande pledged to reduce nuclear power to 50% of consumption by 2025, this is far from constituting actual law. Radical change is unlikely.

The French nuclear establishment can be compared to the American industrial-military establishment: immune to political and societal demands. The French attitude towards nuclear power can be summarized by a comment made by Nicolas Sarkozy in the aftermath of Fukushima. The ex-president, when expressing his disapproval of the possible closure of the Alsatian Fessenheim reactor, quipped, ‘where’s the beach in Alsace?’[1] The ignorant comment vexed anti-nuclear activists, who stress that the run-down Fessenheim reactor is located in a seismic zone.

French companies Areva and Électricité de France (EDF), which are largely state-owned, are global leaders in nuclear technology. They have cemented the profitability of nuclear power in France. France, which has an extremely centralized government, favours the large industrial monopolies that the civil nuclear industry practically requires in order to maintain nuclear security. In a time of economic recession and unemployment, the nuclear industry is one of France’s few competitive industries. France is, for example, the world’s largest net exporter of electricity. Any initiatives towards change will be slowed by a lack of viable domestic alternatives: France stopped mining its diminishing coal supplies in 2004 and recently banned fracking.

In contrast, in Germany, nuclear power has historically been seen as anathema directly contradicting human security. Germany’s decision to phase-out all nuclear energy by 2022 has historic roots: German anti-nuclear sentiment originated in the Cold War, when the divided country feared that the Soviet Union and the U.S. would use Germany as a nuclear weapons battleground. Germany’s strong civil society, formed in reaction to the country’s patriarchal wartime past, has elevated environmental issues to a top political priority.

The German phase-out is part of the larger Energiewende, or energy plan to shift from fossil and nuclear sources to renewables. Germany, an industrial powerhouse, is taking the huge risk of creating electrical instability in its turn away from nuclear power, which accounted for 23% of German electrical supply before Fukushima. It will also need to increase the viability of wind and solar in order to meet its ambitious target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel admits that Energiewende is a ‘Herculean task.’[2]

Regardless of the hurdles it faces, Energiewende sees ardent support across the German political spectrum. The plan, which was first envisioned in the 1980s, relies upon subsidies and feed-in tariffs for renewable biomass, solar and wind power. These policies brought about huge growth in the renewable energy sector: they now account for 20% of electrical output, and Germany hopes to produce 35% from renewable sources by 2020.[3]

Under this framework, nuclear power was perceived across the political spectrum as a mere bridging technology, to be eliminated when it could be replaced by renewable sources. Where nuclear power is seen as the French competitive advantage, Germany hopes its focus on renewables will eventually lead to significant economic gain.

Germany is already a global leader in renewable energy exports and patents; it is expected that these sectors will account for 14% of GDP by 2020. The German economy, unlike the French, favours the entrepreneurial small and medium sized companies necessary for innovation in the renewable industry sector.

German nuclear phase-out will be an arduous trial. It is likely that in some aspects, such as meeting carbon emission reduction goals, Energiewende will cause Germany to fall short.

This, however, does not mean that Germany’s goals are not admirable. When compared to German Energiewende, the energy policies of France appear to be outdated and stuck in the nuclear bureaucracy of the 1970s. Germany is truly submerging itself in the challenge of becoming the first non-nuclear renewable energy economy. Its success will be transformative. France simply does not have the resources or political will to evolve; however, Germany may succeed in creating a renewable energy blueprint that France and the global community could follow in years to come.

What does this mean for the future of nuclear power in Europe?

Fukishima and Energiewende imply the end of the civilian nuclear era. While countries like France and the UK are unlikely to eliminate nuclear power programs in the near future, it is doubtful that there will be significant growth in the industry as other non-carbon energy sources will hopefully become more viable, due in part to German entrepreneurship. Switzerland and Belgium have announced intentions to phase-out nuclear power, while the Italian initiative to restart a nuclear energy program was fervently rejected.  Outside of Europe, even China, whose rapid development necessitates new sources of energy, is slowing the growth of its nuclear industry.

Nuclear power could possibly become a safe, reliable and economically viable energy source. Yet this would require scientific innovation, funding and political backing. Science has the potential to further develop nuclear waste recycling, more effective coolants and better regulatory measures. In the post-Fukushima era however, support for extensive research and development will prove unlikely. The world will therefore observe the German test case with anticipation. The success of Energiewende will prove that renewable energy-based economy is feasible, which would potentially provide the tools needed to reverse climate change.



[3] Ibid