While the nuclear fallout from Japan’s Fukushima plant is unlikely to reach Europe, the political fallout is already arriving in the capitals of the European Union. The EU is considering “stress testing” its 143 nuclear power stations to ensure they can cope with crises. The EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, even raised the prospect of a nuclear-free future.
This represents a dramatic turnaround for a continent that until last week had been considering a partial nuclear revival. This revival was prompted by the EU’s rush to achieve its low-carbon emission goals, but public mistrust of nuclear technology has lingered throughout the region following the Chernobyl accident, the 25th anniversary of which is this year. Nuclear power plants generate one-seventh of Europe’s electricity and the plants’ ages range from a relatively young 10 years in France to Soviet-era installations in Eastern Europe.
Nowhere is the debate on nuclear power more volatile than in Germany. Under the previous coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, Germany decided in 2002 to phase out all 17 of its nuclear plants by 2020. But the current Christian Democrat-Liberals coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel overturned this policy in 2009. In October 2010, Germany extended the lifetime of its nuclear plants by 12 years in a decision that would keep the last plants on line until the mid 2030s.
Just 48 hours after Saturday’s explosion at Fukushima’s reactor No. 1, however, Merkel bowed to public and political pressure, announcing a three-month moratorium to evaluate the safety of Germany’s facilities and promising to take the country’s seven oldest nuclear reactors, all built before 1980, off line for the time being. This represents a stunning reversal of the recently passed extension ahead of upcoming elections in three German provinces. The moratorium will cut German nuclear capacity by 4.9 gigawatts, which will join 2.1 GW of nuclear capacity already off line, due to safety concerns in a number of facilities, especially the Krümmel nuclear plant.
Following Germany’s announcement, European power prices reached their highest point in more than two years. Forward prices for baseload electricity in Germany, Europe’s biggest power market, rose to their highest levels since November 2008. The nuclear debate continues to heat up across Europe. Austria, one of the EU’s biggest opponents of nuclear power, received some support for its call for “stress tests.” Switzerland, meanwhile, said it was suspending plans to replace its five aging nuclear plants “until security standards can be carefully re-examined.” Spanish and Portuguese environment representatives went further and called for the gradual phase-out of nuclear energy.
On the other end of the “atomic” spectrum, France said it had no plans to abandon nuclear generation, which accounts for more than three-quarters of the country’s electric power generation, the highest share in the world. The United Kingdom said it would draw lessons from Fukushima but did not specify how this may affect plans to build replacement plants.
In the United States, meanwhile, Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both from California, expressed concerns about the safety of the state’s nuclear power plants. They questioned the readiness of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, built near geological fault lines, for a major earthquake. At the federal level, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that although the United States is investigating the crisis in Japan, it will not suspend work on new nuclear permits, and nuclear energy will continue to be an element in the country’s energy arsenal. President Obama asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a “comprehensive review” of American power plants. This stands in contrast to China’s decision to suspend the approval process for nuclear power stations until safety standards have been revised.
After the catastrophe at Chernobyl nearly 25 years ago, the construction of new nuclear power plants declined dramatically and countries began to invest heavily in coal-fired plants. Only recently have countries such as China, South Korea, and Russia begun the construction of new nuclear facilities. While it remains to be seen how lasting the political fallout from Japan’s ongoing disaster will be, renewable energy sources seem likely to profit the most from the renewed debate about the safety of nuclear power.
The issue of nuclear renaissance will be discussed at an upcoming event co-sponsored by the Worldwatch Institute at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington, D.C. Worldwatch will also be releasing a global status report on nuclear energy in mid April.