by Francesca Buratti, Nadja Hendriks, Sandra Kroher, Fabian Stricker
Living in a post-Chernobyl and Fukushima world, the debate about nuclear energy does not come to an end. Public, governmental and scientific opinion is split with regard to the usage of nuclear energy. While some countries decided to stop producing nuclear energy, others still adhere to this source of electricity. Especially in the European Union, France and Germany are on opposite sides of the discussion. The idea of a nuclear phase-out stands against nuclear renaissance. In the following, the situation in France and Germany will be compared with regard to the nuclear energy issue.
Germany is one of the most prominent countries in the European Union which wants to quit nuclear energy. The accident in Fukushima moved the German government to advance its phase-out. Before this event, the general belief was that reactors in the U.S., Japan and Germany were more secure. A technological superiority was assumed. However, the opposite is the case in a post-Fukushima world. Different risk assessments prove that reactors can never be completely safe from any kind of incident. Therefore, seven of the oldest power plants were shut down immediately due to safety concerns after the dimensions of Fukushima were estimated. (Koranyi 2011, p.199)
Nevertheless, the process of the nuclear phase-out in Germany has been in progress since the Chernobyl melt down in 1986. The event was crucial for the decision of the German government to establish a new ministry for environment, nature conservation, construction and the security of reactors in 1986. As the name already implies, it was in charge of guaranteeing the secure use of reactors in the western part of Germany.(http://www.bmub.bund.de/bmu/chronologie/). The first severe nuclear accident did not change the government policy in the direction towards a phase out of nuclear energy.
Furthermore, the accident in Chernobyl caused the regaining strength of a strong environmental movement. (Conradt 1996 p.159) It already had a strong basis as there had been protests against the construction of nuclear power plants with a rising intensity since the early 1970’s. In 1975, the conflicts about nuclear energy became a central topic in the public discussion due to the events that took place in Wyhl. (Rucht 2008, p. 250) Here the construction site of a power plant was occupied by 28 000 protesters for several months which prolonged the actual manufacture time. (Rucht 2008, p. 249) Besides that continuous demonstrations with numerous protesters took place in Brokdorf and Gorleben. (Rucht 2008, p. 250-52) The protests were against either the construction of a new power plant or the installation of a permanent disposal site for nuclear waste such as in Wackersdorf. The the beginning of the 1980s, the newly founded Green Party gave nuclear issues a prominent platform.
After the ctastrophe of Chernobyl even citizens who previously had not participated in protests against nuclear power were worried about the impact of radioactive contamination within several parts of Germany. Michael Sailer (an expert on atomic energy with a rather skeptical attitude towards the topic) mentions that many people were insecure about what types of food they could eat or what information about the accident was credible. (www.oeko.de/dokumente/20a_tschernobyl.pdf) This direct contact with radioactive contamination after Chernobyl can also explain the strict attitude of Germany wanting to phase out. Politics followed soon. In 1991, a law was passed promoting the usage of renewable energy (“Act on the Sale of Electricity to the Grid”). Ten years later, the new Social Democrat and Green Party coalition government extend this law in order to diminish the current custom of nuclear energy. It forced the most influential energy firms to primarily supply renewable energy. It went as far as forbidding the establishment of new reactors. (Wolfrum 2013, p. 244-6) According to the phase out plan, the all German nuclear reactors would have had to be shut down by 2022. By doing so, the private sector was encouraged to advance technological research in alternative energy. (Koranyi 2011, p.198-9/201)
Nevertheless in 2005, when the Christian Conservative and Liberal coalition government took over, the German phase-out came to a complete stop. They actually prolonged the runtime of the reactors from 40 years to 46 years. In 2011, the accident at the Japanese power in Fukushima happened. Public opinion in Germany shifted even stronger towards a nuclear phase-out. According to several opinion polls that were raised after the accident of Fukushima, the majority of German citizens was against the use of nuclear power as an energy source. Angela Merkel’s government had to react and return to the phase out plan. (Wolfrum 2013, p. 244-5) The upcoming German regional elections in several federal states in 2011 had a possible influence on the complete turn back towards a nuclear phase-out till 2022. (European Commission, “Fukushimas effects on nuclear policy in Germany and the UK”)
Even though the price for electricity increases by using renewable energy, the German population is expected to support this decision and the costs. (Koranyi 2011, p.200) Jürgen Becker, deputy minister of environment in Germany points out that “it is better to go for other energy services in a civilized country.”(The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2010-11) This statement underlines the political position towards the denuclearization.
Nuclear power represents a fundamental source of electricity production in France since 1964, when the first nuclear power plant was opened up. Ever since, around 60 reactors became operative satisfying the nuclear plan proposed by President Pierre Messmer after the 1973 international oil crisis. Even immediately following the Cernobyl accident in 1986, french nuclear race did not decrease significantly: in contrast to Germany where the event was almost immediately framed as an internal emergency, in France the media and the goverment tended to not adopt resctrictive measures, mainly due to the fact that the radioactive fallout had not affected France’s territory. It was already clear that France expected to become one of the world leaders in nuclear energy taking into account the principles of environmental protection in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strict checks and balances on radioactive waste and safe supply of nuclear materials. (cf. Schneider 2013, pp. 5ff.)
Today, France is traditionally cited as a best case example regarding civilian nuclear energy programmes, particularly in the context of low carbon dioxide emission rates. (cf. Jean-Baptiste/ Ducroux 2003, pp. 4062 f.) As can be seen below, France’s total domestic electricity generation amounted up to 79.4% deriving from nuclear power, British and German figures modestly accounted for 19% and 17.9% in 2011.
Following the Fukushima accident, the carbon reduction argument has given way to a re-ignited discourse on nuclear safety and possible hazardous effects of nuclear energy on the environment and human health. France was forced to reconsider its nuclear programme, its safety and prospective construction of nuclear power plants in governmental debates, taking into account the impact that the catastrophe had had on national public opinion.
Yet, it is noteworthy that immediate responses to the Fukushima accident did not carry the same negative fortitude in terms of governmental support for nuclear energy ubiquitously. The immediate response by French politicians, conversely to their German counterparts, was not to abandon nuclear power as a policy option of electricity generation. (cf. Siegrist/ Visschers 2013, p. 3436) In fact, the Sarkozy administration demonstrated its commitment to nuclear energy and argued that France could not afford to lose thousands of jobs by closing nuclear power plants as well as to become dependent on other countries’ energy production.
The main concerns for France were to face a possible radioactive fallout and the possible contamination of food crops, basically as it was for the rest of Europe where radiation checks and balances in agriculture had already begun. Additionally, the French government had to overcome the fears of its population which had fallen into apprehension and uncertainty about the safety of French nuclear power plants. Moreover, it had to make sure its nuclear energy programme would not follow suit with Germany’s nuclear phase out and Italian decommissioning of nuclear facilities. A new plan, called “STRESS TEST”, was introduced to guarantee a higher level of safety and emergency procedures in the reactors in case of urgency.
When Hollande was elected in 2012, France’s plan to reduce and extensively scale back nuclear energy production to 50% of total domestic electricity generation gained momentum. (cf. Energy Post 21.01.2014). This change can be attributed to the stress evoked by some French parties, scientists and the public for a massive development of renewable energies and job creation through green technologies.
Interestingly, the IRSN (Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety) report about the French public opinion towards the country’s nuclear industry in 2012 confirms this trend inversion. The IRSN Barometer report states:
“The confidence of the French people that government action will protect them from nuclear risks is severely damaged (because of Fukushima) and the population is increasingly likely to be concerned about the risks associated with nuclear power plants. After the “shock to public opinion” that the Fukushima accident on 11 March 2011 caused, nuclear power risks have climbed to the fourth-highest concern of the French, behind unemployment, the financial crisis, and (social) exclusion. Today, 55 percent of the population consider nuclear power plant risks “high” and only 24 percent “trust the authorities” to protect the public against this danger. More than 80 percent “want the safety assessment of French nuclear facilities to take place in a pluralistic manner,” with (the involvement of) international experts.” (cf. Institute de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire (2012): “Annual Report 2012”; 45ff.)
We found it important to highlight the opinion of Bertrand Barré, scientific advisor to the French energy company AREVA, who talked about the state of nuclear reactors in France. With regard to France’s nuclear power program, he speaks about the country’s reactions to Fukushima. You can watch his interview from 2012 here.
The underlying question is where France’s nuclear programme is heading. Is the French government pursuing a nuclear phase out? Indubitably, pulling out of nuclear energy would pose a number of obstacles for the French energy industry. A simple and obvious question is how France wants to achieve scaling-back, both, in nuclear energy and carbon dioxide reduction at the same time?
While France may intend to pursue a nuclear phase out domestically, its nuclear industry related activities internationally portray a very different picture: In October 2013, a very ambitious nuclear power project at the Hinkley Point site in the United Kingdom has been concluded, spearheaded by French electric utility company Électricité de France (EDF) – other stakeholders include the French public multinational industrial conglomerate Areva as well as two Chinese nuclear firms CGNP and CNNC. (cf. The Telegraph 31.01.2014) Also in October 2013, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius led a French investment delegation to Mongolia which, amongst other deals, concluded a partnership agreement between Areva, the Mongolian Mon-Atom and the Japanese Mitsubishi for uranium extraction. (cf. Nuclear Engineering International 28.10.2013)
Domestically, it remains to be seen whether France will transition from nuclear towards renewable energy and whether this is even economically feasible. Even though subsidized approaches aim to accelerate the transition process, the French nuclear industry is stagnating at best. With most of the renewable energy industry yet to be constructed, dependency on nuclear energy still remains paramount. In addition, France is exporting a lot of its nuclear energy and will lose an extensive part of income when nuclear power plants will be decommissioned as it is foreseen in Fessenheim until 2016 for example.
The energy transition linked to the decommissioning of numerous nuclear power plants has re-ignited a national debate on the future of nuclear energy in France. The stigma that nuclear energy was given in hindsight of the Fukushima accident, plays a very dominant role in France’s nuclear phase out, but so do arguments of energy security and carbon reduction and the adequacy of renewable energy as an alternative. Conversely, this contributes to stagnation with regard to a French nuclear phase out and possible nuclear renaissance.
To conclude, our study clearly shows how countries, in the cases of France and Germany, might react differently in shaping internal nuclear policies. This gap mainly depends on how external events, such as the mentioned Chernobyl and Fukushima are perceived, and how they affect governmental decisions. Public opinion is crucial too as well as the capacity of media and goverments to monitor anxieties regarding nuclear power through safety policies. In addition, the national nuclear history might be further considered, and how a cut in nuclear energy would affect the economy and the dependence on external countries. In sum, while Germany pursues an ostentatious phase out, France’s stance regarding nuclear energy is very ambiguous and stagnating in terms of phasing out.
- Bundesministerum für Umwelt, http://www.bmub.bund.de/bmu/chronologie/ download on: 24.02.2014
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