By Andrei Fedyashin
Aftershocks from the massive earthquake in Japan are reverberating in European politics and the nuclear power industry. While the disaster in Japan has highlighted the risks of nuclear energy, European nations will continue to use it for lack of reliable alternative to feed their growing energy demands. But now efforts to expand Europe’s nuclear power base will be met with new challenges and costs, both financial and political.
Accidents at three of Japan’s 55 nuclear power plants have cast the largest nuclear shadow over Europe since Chernobyl.
The explosions at Japan’s Fukushima 1 and 2 nuclear plants come less than 25 years after the Chernobyl disaster (April 26, 1986), which the world’s environmentalists, Green parties and movements and all other advocates of green energy have used as the main argument against nuclear power ever since.
The devastating earthquake has shaken the foundations of Europe’s energy strategy. Europe recently started increasing its nuclear generation capacity. As the energy plans of the European Commission make clear, nuclear power had been seen, among other things, as a way to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.
Now politicians are facing resistance to nuclear power at home. Organizers of an anti-nuclear demonstration at the Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant in south Germany on March 12 where pleasantly surprised when 50,000 people came to the rally – double the number expected. Chancellor Merkel has called an emergency cabinet meeting for March 14.
Elections will be held in three German provinces in March and in five more later this year. Merkel was far from safe before the disaster in Japan, and now her opponents are using her past support for nuclear power to scare up votes. Japan is famous for its strict nuclear regulations, and yet these accidents still occurred. What are the chances that Europe will succeed where Japan has failed? The argument is persuasive.
Anti-nuclear demonstrations have also been held in Britain, with some warning of the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis on the British Isles.
This is not a solid foundation for a political career, much less a nuclear energy strategy.
“How many more warnings do people need to get before they understand that nuclear reactors are inherently hazardous?” asks Jan Beranek, a nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace International. “We are told by the nuclear industry that things like this cannot happen with modern reactors, yet today Japan is in the middle of a nuclear crisis with potentially devastating consequences.”
Not all nuclear experts share Beranek’s view, but the danger of a nuclear disaster, whether large or small, is real.
Beranek believes that “governments should invest in renewable energy resources that are not only environmentally sound but also affordable and reliable.”
Although the reactor at Fukushima 1 is much more reliable than the one that exploded at Chernobyl, and although Japanese engineers did their best to prevent the large-scale release of nuclear radiation, there is a very simple question that is nagging me: Why did the emergency cooling system at Fukushima fail in the first place?
Some say they were damaged by the tsunami. But how was this possibility overlooked in Japan, where earthquakes and tsunamis are endemic?
Such elementary mistakes can have catastrophic consequences.
Plans to expand the nuclear power industry will certainly be put on hold in Japan, where 30% of electricity comes from nuclear power. Japan had planned to increase this figure to 50% by 2020.
In some European countries, suspending nuclear energy plans could lead to an energy shortage that could seriously impair economic growth.
Britain had planned to build 10 nuclear power plants to complement its existing 19. Sites had already been selected. But the disaster in Japan will slow down the implementation of these plans, as residents of nearby towns and cities, as well as the electorate at large, are demanding a thorough review.
But energy experts say that if these nuclear power plants are not built now, Britain will suffer from power shortages as early as 2015 or 2018.
Britain is Europe’s oldest nuclear power. It commissioned the world’s first 50 MW reactor in Cumbria in 1956, although the world’s first nuclear power plant was built in Obninsk near Moscow, Russia. Britain and France have recently initiated a “nuclear renaissance” and agreed to jointly develop new types of nuclear reactors for export in a bid to dominate the market.
Angela Merkel’s coalition decided in late 2010 to extend the service life of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants for at least ten years.
The situation is no better in nuclear-free Italy. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently said that Italy has the largest electricity deficit and the highest electricity prices in the world. Italy has no nuclear power plants, but Berlusconi had planned to build ten nuclear power plants to ease the energy crisis. The disaster in Japan has certainly put these plans in doubt.
Nuclear power plants produce a larger share of Europe’s electricity than in any other region in the world: 79% in France, 76% in Lithuania, and from 22% to 51% in Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany and Hungary.
Russian nuclear power plants generate the largest amount of electricity in the world, but just 17.8% of the total electricity produced in Russia – about the same as in Spain.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.