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Barthélémy Courmont's Presentation at 2011 ASAN Plenum, "Europe's Responses to Fukushima: Nuclear Renaissance Revisited?"

This presentation was a part of the 2011 ASAN Plenum in Seoul, South Korea.

Jun 14, 2011
AUTHOR: Barthélémy Courmont

Europe’s responses to Fukushima:

nuclear renaissance revisited?

Barthélémy Courmont*


The Fukushima incident not only raised the question of nuclear safety, but also appears more globally as a potential major threat to the so-called “nuclear renaissance”.  This direct consequence of the Japanese catastrophe is particularly visible in Europe, where it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.  It has incited heated discussions about the desirability of nuclear power.  By awakening dormant fears that appear to be very strong within the public opinions, this debate threatens to halt what too many had seemed like a budding nuclear renaissance.  For many observers, Fukushima marks the “end of nuclear” more than Chernobyl ever did, mostly because it took place in a very advanced country.  There has been a big change in attitudes as a response to Fukushima as powerful as there was to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, according to Xavier Rabilloud of the French green movement “Sortir du Nucléaire” (Get out of Nuclear):  “The fact that so many countries have demanded that reactors should undergo stress tests is a clear admission that safety at nuclear power is an illusion and that no one can guarantee that nuclear accidents will never happen”.

Officially, the World Nuclear Association still mentions a nuclear renaissance despite Fukushima.  It says atomic power can help meet increasing global energy demand, fight climate change and reduce reliance on imported energy.  It also argues that nuclear power reactors account for far less greenhouse gases than fossil fuel plants over their lifetimes.  Most States tend to act in accordance to this line, with the exception of Germany and Austria.  While Greenpeace insists 68 percent of EU electricity needs can come from renewables by 2030 and 99.5 percent by 2050, nuclear output still has priority.  Europe’s divisions over nuclear power have deepened since Fukushima, with Britain and France remaining steadfast supporters, Italy shelving plans to build new plants (after its abandon in 1987) and Germany calling for a phase-out.

The revision of the nuclear renaissance accelerated by the divergences among the member states, and particularly the German U Turn, has potential important consequences in a continent where nuclear energy has been particularly successful.  In the past decades, the EU countries have been considered world leaders in the field of nuclear energy, largely due to the lack of natural resources that convinced some states to adopt a pro nuclear policy.  All together, 14 member states out of 27 produce nuclear energy. The biggest producers are France, with 58 reactors in operation and another 2 planned, UK, with 19 currently in use and another 8 to come on-stream, and Germany currently with 17 reactors.  The others are: Sweden (with 10), Spain (8), Belgium (7), the Czech Republic (6), Finland (4), Hungary (4), Slovakia (4), Bulgaria (2), Romania (2), the Netherlands (1) and Slovenia (1).  Switzerland, whose government recommends phasing out by 2034, has 5 reactors, to which must be added 32 in Russia and 15 in Ukraine.  Another is also being built in Belarus.  The following map shows the location of the nuclear reactors in Europe, including the ones in project or politically approved, as well as the one under a process of dismantling.

This paper studies the European reactions to the Fukushima disaster and the divergences in nuclear policies implemented by member states since. After focusing on the media reaction, it will analyze the political responses, opposing the German approach and the Franco-British pro-nuclear posture, before studying in a conclusion the effects of these divergences at the EU level.

The media reaction to the nuclear accident


Whatever the ultimate scale of the nuclear accident underway at the Fukushima plant in Japan, the ground in Europe has been trembling like never since Chernobyl in 1986.  In all different countries, the media reported the comparison between the two events, and echoed the differences in responses to the catastrophe among the European countries.  “The debate that seemed to be fading away with the memory of Chernobyl has come back with brutal insistence”, notes Le Figaro.  The French daily explained that what happened in Japan is dealing “an extremely hard blow to the side of the nuclear power sector globally”.  It came following soaring oil prices in 2008 that “permitted talk of a resurgence in nuclear power for civilian use around the world” and the desire of  “Brussels, urged on by Paris, to rank nuclear power among ‘carbon-free energy sources’, just like hydroelectric, solar or wind power”.  “In no region of the world is nuclear energy as important as it is in Europe”, underlined the German Die Welt.

Today, however, writes Le Figaro, “those opposed to nuclear power are regaining strength throughout Europe.  In Germany, where the conservative-liberal government of Angela Merkel voted in the autumn of 2009 to extend the shelf-life of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors; (...) in Austria, a country traditionally hostile to nuclear energy, whose environment minister, Nikolaus Berlakovich, has pleaded for a ‘stress test’ for European plants; (...) in Britain, where the Cameron government has revived its plant construction program and in October identified eight new sites, the energy minister, Chris Huhne, has said he supports an investigation ‘to learn the necessary lessons’ from the event, while the government will decide in June whether to authorize use of the EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) technology from Areva and EDF”.

The shock has been enough to bring us to “the end of the nuclear era”, Der Spiegel headlined.  The German weekly demanded that the doctrine of zero risk be revisited: “Certainly, Japan is an earthquake zone, which increases the risk there and is one distinction between Japan and Germany or France.  But Japan also has among the most highly developed industries, in which well-trained and punctilious engineers build the most modern and most reliable cars in the world.  At the time of the disaster at Chernobyl the German nuclear industry was able to persuade itself and the German public that in eastern Europe the reactors were outdated and the engineers were incompetent and negligent.  We see now just how presumptuous this perception was. [...]  All we need is a series of unfortunate accidents [and] Fukushima would be in everyone’s back yard”.

The following map indicates the potential hazard of radioactive contamination.  It shows the areas within a distance of 30 kilometers from the nuclear reactors as well as within 300 kilometers.  Although debatable, considering that it does not take into consideration the separation between outdated and modern nuclear facilities, this map is quite a good indication of how the fear of a nuclear accident and its consequences is appreciated in Europe, particularly in countries such as Germany and Belgium.

For years, reports Der Standard, “doubts have been voiced about the safety of eastern European plants such as those at Mochovce [Slovakia] and Temelín [Czech Republic, near the Austrian border].  When it comes to power in Germany, though, the criticism is more muted.  As it happens, for example, we’ve known for years that the Neckarwestheim plant in Baden-Wurttemberg is in a seismic zone”.  This vulnerability reminds us that “nuclear issues haven’t yet come up with clear answers: Is the technology controllable?  Can the plants be made safer?  Can safe disposal of waste be guaranteed?  It’s up to the EU to launch inspections of all nuclear installations in Europe”, maintains the paper, which considers the proposals of the Austrian Minister of Environment, Nikolaus Berlakovich, to conduct stress tests for nuclear power plants to be a “step in the right direction”.

Since 1979, when radiation leaked from the Three Mile Island plant in the United States, “we have made great technological strides forward”, the Czech newspaper Hospodářské noviny pointed out.  Unlike in 1986, the date of the Chernobyl disaster, “there is no longer any communist regime that as a matter of principle cares not a whit for the safety of its people”, and most of Europe does not lie within a seismically active region.  For that reason, “to abandon nuclear power would be even more absurd, given that alternative energy sources are limited.  The proper response to Fukushima is not to dump nuclear energy in a panic, but to draw the right conclusions from what happened and improve safety measures”.

The Fukushima accident should certainly not be underestimated, wrote Sergio Rizzo in an editorial in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.  On the other hand, “the emotion understandably caused by this tragedy should not determine our fundamental energy policy choices.  We’ve done it already and we burned our fingers: the anti-nuclear referendum of 1987 was passed by a large majority because of the shock over the accident at Chernobyl”.  But instead of leading to the promised green energies, the vote that approving shutting down Italian nuclear plants has led instead to a new dependence on oil.  In the past two years, Italy has been a good example of a state tempted by a nuclear renaissance.  A confidence vote in 2011 allowed the Berlusconi cabinet to launch a new program of constructions of nuclear plants.

The most radical position was take by Belgium’s De Standaard : “We have to pay the price for our way of life”, since “as we are not prepared to radically curtail our consumption, we must accept that electricity at affordable prices comes with some risks”.  It’s in this context that, by coincidence, the Belgian government launched a campaign to “inform the public on possible protective measures in the event of nuclear accidents”.

The media reveal the impact the public opinion may have on leaders, depending on the national culture and perception of nuclear energy in different EU states.  In this respect, the examples of France and Germany are particularly relevant.

The German U turn


Angela Merkel’s decision to extend the working life of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants last year, reversing a deal done 10 years ago between the SPD-Green government and the energy producers for an exit by 2021, was considered the most significant proof of a nuclear renaissance in Europe.  For the same reason, the German U Turn appears to be the proof of its necessary revision.

A few weeks after the Fukushima accident, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the seven power stations built before 1980 would stop be closed provisionally.  Germany has already had suspended a decision to maintain production at other nuclear plants built in the 1980s and 1990s.

After Merkel took over in 2005 as leader of a coalition with the Social Democrats, she quietly reversed plans to phase out nuclear power taken by the Social Democrats – Green coalition that had led the country since 1998.  This U Turn in German nuclear policy is quite radical, but does not appear to be a major surprise considering the recent history of this country.  The meltdown of a Soviet reactor in Chernobyl in 1986 caused such hysteria in Germany that the nuclear industry has never recovered, despite the fact that fears of radioactive clouds proved greatly exaggerated.  Since that, the political leaders have been constantly fighting with a massive anti-nuclear movement that never faded, and strongly opposed recent decisions to renew the German nuclear plants.

The costs of the reactor accident in Fukushima will also be substantial, and they will burden the Japanese economy for years, if not decades. These economic costs will be an additional factor leading to a rethink of the nuclear energy. There are already signs that this is happening, especially in Europe. Until recently, it would have been impossible to subject all nuclear power plants within the EU to a European stress test based on a uniform standard, as the European Council, partly in response to pressure from the German government, has just decided. Germany will also push for a new international assessment of the risks of nuclear energy at a special conference in 2012 of the signatory countries of the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

“Germany must speed up its transition to renewable energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident”, wrote Norbert Röttgen, the German environment minister, in an opinion piece published in Der Spiegel on April 24th, 2011.  He believes Germany can lead the way with a successful shift into green power that will boost its economy.


Germany marked a drastic policy reversal by announcing on May 30th that it will shut all its nuclear reactors by 2022, after an agreement within the coalition parties, and only three days after a severe defeat of Merkel’s party, the CDU, in an important election in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg.  Angela Merkel backtracked in March 2011 on an unpopular decision just months earlier to extend the life of ageing nuclear stations in Germany, where the majority of voters oppose atomic energy.  The decision still needs to go through parliament and leaders of the opposition Social Democrats and the Greens were present at parts of the meeting to enable a broad consensus.  Germany received 23 per cent of its power from nuclear plants.

For some observers, the German U Turn reflects the weak state of Merkel’s government, which is criticized on various issues and faces difficulties in local elections.  But considering the importance of Germany within the EU, the decision to quit nuclear undoubtedly has major effects on the other European countries’ posture.  EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told Germany’s ARD Television: “When a large member state like Germany re-examines atomic energy this can have consequences at the European level.  If we in Germany are examining nuclear plants from the 80s and 90s, we must also raise the question of whether the security check should be done for all atomic plants in Europe”.  Following on Germany’s footsteps, Austria called for all nuclear reactors in Europe to undergo stress tests in the event of severe earthquakes.  Switzerland said it had suspended plans to renew nuclear power plants.

Within the EU, Germany and Austria have pushed for “stress tests” to be carried out on all of Europe’s reactors to ensure they could stand up to earthquake and tsunami scenario such as occurred at the Fukushima plant.  The issue is hot also in Spain, where solar energy is the big renewable source, in Belgium, and in Scotland, a state-less energy fulcrum that is home to about a quarter of Britain’s nuclear capacity, but whose new and separatist majority government does not want any new reactor

France and UK’s nuclear resistance

Among the countries that took totally different paths than Germany, France and UK appear as leaders.  However, debates whether nuclear energy is relevant took place in these countries, following the German decision.

France is by far Europe’s biggest producer of atomic energy (and second biggest globally after the US).  Dues to its lack of natural resources, it is also the most  nuclear-dependant country in the world.  Some 80% of energy consumed in the country comes from nuclear sources.  Unsurprisingly, for a country that relies so heavily on the atomic energy sector, the reaction to the Japanese dilemma was muted at first.  French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet called events in Japan “extremely serious” but added that “France should not follow the rest of the EU in overreacting to the situation domestically”

However, her tone was significantly more alarmist a few days later.  On her way to an emergency cabinet meeting, Kosciusko-Morizet said Japan was heading for “catastrophe”.  She said called the news that the concrete vessel around the reactor was breached “the worst scenario”.

After this statement, France’s political and nuclear leaders have repeated and emphasized the difference between France and Japan, in order to respond the public opinion’s fears.  In an interview with Le Parisien a few days after the tsunami, Anne Lauvergeon, CEO of French nuclear energy giant Areva said that while the world was analysing the lessons coming out of Japan, the situation in France posed very different challenges.  “There is no risk in France of a tsunami hitting our power stations nor is there a risk of such powerful earthquakes,” she said.  Responding to calls from environmentalists to halt nuclear energy production, she replied: “They are surfing a wave of emotion.  The reality of nuclear energy is that it produces no CO2, electricity is 40% cheaper in France than in the rest of Europe”.

But the coming presidential election in 2012 and the beginning of the electoral campaign pushed the ecologist movement to call for abandon of the nuclear dependence in the future.  It was justified by an Ifop opinion poll published on June 4th that found just over three-quarters of those surveyed back a gradual withdrawal over the next 25 to 30 years from nuclear technology.  In that poll, only 22 percent of respondents supported building new nuclear power stations, 15 percent backed a swift decommissioning and 62 percent a gradual one.  Anticipating such results, the green party made the nuclear energy a critical issue prior to the 2012 election.  Both Nicolas Hulot and Eva Joly, candidates for the primaries of the green party, believe that although France cannot give up its nuclear potential in the near future, considering its importance, political measures have to be taken to focus on renewable energies.  According to both candidates, a referendum must be held on nuclear energy in the near future.  The green party even made the nuclear issue a condition to a possible alliance with the socialist party, on the eve of the 2012 presidential election.

This exigency from the ecological party divides the candidates for the socialist primaries, which will designate the party’s candidate to next year’s presidential election.  Martine Aubry, secretary-general of the Socialist party, praised Angela Merkel’s decision and believes that France should strongly consider a nuclear-end strategy within 20 to 30 years.  But she refused to define any agenda.  Ségolène Royal shares this approach, considering that 40 years seems more reasonable.  Less radical and known for his “pro-nuclear” posture, François Hollande suggests a transition in order to reduce the nuclear dependence, but refuses to consider that France will dismantle all of its nuclear plants within half a century.  The former secretary-general of the party calls for a reduction from 75% to 50% of the electricity provided by nuclear within a few decades.  Finally, Arnaud Montebourg is more cautious and believes that any debate regarding the future of energy in France should invite the industries, including the major nuclear companies.

The center-right potential candidate and former minister of ecology, Jean-Louis Borloo, stated that France has considerably developed renewable energies in the past few years, compared to the other EU countries.  He believes that such efforts will be enhanced by the Fukushima accident.

The UMP approach is more pragmatic, and the presidential party believes that France and Germany, the closest allies in EU, come to a compromise on Germany’s abandon of its nuclear capabilities.  In public, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel are diametrically opposed on the nuclear power issue.  But in reality, her decision to get out of the nuclear power business means that France will be supplying a growing proportion of German energy needs over coming decades. Nicolas Sarkozy himself stated on June 7th that “If they (the Germans) stop their reactors, then they will have to be replaced. We’ll be candidates to sell electricity”.  Somehow, Merkel’s recent decision is more welcomed by the French government than the one she took last year.

The UK also vigorously defended its atomic energy program.  British Energy Minister Chris Huhne said that plans to build eight new nuclear power stations in England and Wales would go ahead.  While saying that the British energy sector would “learn every possible lesson” from the Japanese crisis, he told the BBC that “there is a very big difference in that we’re, frankly, amazingly lucky that we don’t live in a seismically active earthquake zone like Japan”.  But the British government is facing a growing opposition from Scotland.

Among the other EU members, the Czech Republic, as an important uranium producer, stands behind the position defended by France and the UK.

The effects at the EU level: from political frictions to agreements


The issue of renewable energies is central in the EU divergences.  In 2010, the European Climate Foundation (ECF) published a much-noted report called Roadmap 2050, which modeled in great detail the cost and technical feasibility of various scenarios for a carbon-free power system in Europe by 2050.  It describes a scenario of 80% renewable power, complemented by a remnant of nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration.  The ECF’s conclusion is that a continent-wide renewable power system is both technically possible and economically affordable.  The much-maligned and very real intermittency of supplies of renewable power is addressed through additional back-up generation capacity and, crucially, a new direct-current super-grid that enables load balancing across the European continent.  But the ECF fails in responding to the critical question of alternatives between the end of the nuclear power and the rise of renewable power.  This uncertainty leads the European nuclear powers in a position where they will unlikely follow the German example.


European countries’ nuclear capacities and recent developments


GERMANY - The government voted in 2010 to extend the lives of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants.  But after the Japanese nuclear disaster, Germany reversed course, saying it would move out of nuclear power, keeping shut eight suspended reactors and closing the rest by 2022.  Of the 17 in total, another six will be taken offline by 2021, environment minister Norbert Roettgen said.  As of January 2011, Germany’s capacity was 20,490 MWe.

FRANCE - France is building a 1,600 MW reactor at Flamanville, which is expected to begin commercial operation in 2014, two years later than planned.  France has 58 nuclear plants with a capacity of 63,130 MWe.

UK - Europe’s leading utilities have bought land to build new nuclear power plants in England and Wales, with the first expected to be built by 2018.  As of January 2011 Britain had 19 nuclear power plants with a capacity of 10,137 MWe.

SWEDEN - Sweden has 10 nuclear plants with a capacity of 9,303 MWe and supplying around 50 percent of the country’s electricity.

ITALY - The only non-nuclear G8 industrialised nation. Italy decided in 1987 to shut its reactors following the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.  Italy’s centre-right government won a confidence vote in May 2011 on a package of measures that included shelving plans to build new nuclear power plants.  Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided to scrap the construction of new nuclear plants amid mounting public concern.

CZECH REPUBLIC - Czech utility CEZ postponed a tender to add two more units at its Temelin nuclear power plant in 2010 due to uncertainty in power markets, now expected in 2013.  The Czech Republic has six plants with a capacity of 3,722 MWe.

FINLAND - The parliament voted to build two new nuclear reactors in July 2010.  It is building a fifth nuclear reactor, the 1,600-megawatt Olkiluoto-3, expected to come online in 2013 after several delays.  Finland has four plants with a net capacity of 2,716 MWe.

NETHERLANDS - Dutch utility Delta plans to build a nuclear plant with EDF that could be operational by 2019.  Netherlands has one nuclear plant with a capacity of 487 MWe.

POLAND - The government wants one or two nuclear power plants of its own to be built, the first by 2022, to break its reliance on coal for energy.  The project already has been delayed once from 2020.

SLOVAKIA - Two 470-MW units are being built at Mochovce and expected to operate from 2012-2013 in a project led by Enel unit Slovenske Elektrarne.  Slovakia has four nuclear plants with a capacity of 1,792 MWe.

As soon as the media reported the Fukushima accident, strong oppositions appeared among EU members.  The divergence took another step when the EU Energy commissioner (from Germany) Günther Oettinger described the Japanese nuclear crisis as “an apocalypse”, comments which caused financial markets to plunge and hit Japan’s economy as it struggled to cope with a devastating earthquake.  At an emergency Brussels meeting called by the German commissioner to discuss new tests of Europe’s reactors, Eric Besson, the French energy minister, accused Mr Oettinger of “neurotic” opposition to atomic power.  This type of vivid critics is a good indication of how Germany upsets several EU members with its decision, and how it rapidly reached the EU institutions.

The scope of the tests is still the subject of controversy however.  Oettinger is pushing for simulated responses to terror attacks and plane crashes to be undertaken as part of the exercise, while regulators from the nuclear nations want to limit them to natural disasters.  “These tests should be comprehensive and include the widest range of scenarios, natural and man-made, focusing on their possible impact on the plants’ functioning systems”, Jose Manuel Barroso said on May 11th.  It shows clearly the interaction between nuclear safety and nuclear security, both for the public opinion and the political leaders.

An agreement was found however.  Government ministers and officials from nearly 30 nuclear energy producing countries called on June 7th for safety tests on all reactors, after the disaster at Fukushima plant sparked concern over standards.  In addition to finding a consensus on stress tests of nuclear safety, the ministers and officials also agreed on the need to reinforce the IAEA’s role on nuclear safety.  “The Fukushima accident in Japan shook us all and the need arose very quickly to draw lessons, to improve and lift our standards and cooperation on nuclear safety”, French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said after the conference she chaired.  She was followed by German Deputy Environment Minister, Ursula Heinen-Esser who stated that “Stress test or resilience tests are a first priority to identify vulnerabilities”.



In a conclusion, we may summarize a few questions that remain unsolved, and that EU political leaders may have to face in the near future:

  1. What will be the EU position if more countries decide to follow the German example?  At what point shall we consider that the nuclear renaissance is disputed in Europe?
  2. What are the chances for success in Germany’s search for renewable energies? And what will be the German position if it does not work as efficiently as planned?
  3. How solid is the agreement on stress tests?  Are some countries likely to call for a revised agreement, in order to push harder or, on the other side, reduce it?
  4. What will be France’s position if the Green party has a high score in 2012 and pressures a potential socialist government? And what if a referendum was confirming the public opinion’s fear, like in Italy in 1987?
  5. More generally, is the divergence on nuclear energy symptomatic of the problems the EU members face, or an isolated and specific case?





* Professor of Political Science at Hallym University (Chuncheon, Korea), and Associate-research fellow at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic relations (IRIS).  He is also associate-director, Security and Defense, at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair in Strategic and Diplomatic Studies (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada) and chief editor of the French quarterly Monde chinois, nouvelle Asie.


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