Year After Fukushima, Nuclear Energy Divides Europe

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives for a visit to the nuclear power plant site of Areva in Tricastin, southern France, November 25, 2011.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives for a visit to the nuclear power plant site of Areva in Tricastin, southern France, November 25, 2011.

Last year's accident at Japan's Fukushima-Daichi nuclear power plant has intensified divisions in Europe over the safety and future of nuclear energy. Perhaps nowhere are the differences more apparent than between the region's biggest powers - France and Germany.

The eurozone crisis has strengthened bonds between France and Germany. But another crisis - last year's nuclear accident in Japan - is dividing these European neighbors.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a strong proponent of nuclear energy. He argues that nuclear energy is critical in supplying jobs and low-cost power.

France is one of the world's leading nuclear energy producers. Roughly three-quarters of electricity here is derived from nuclear power. France also exports nuclear energy and technology. French companies will be building a nuclear reactor in Britain, and are bidding to build others in South Africa.

But the Fukushima accident prompted the German government to announce a shutdown of all its nuclear reactors by 2022 - rather than a more gradual phaseout.

Germany's action followed massive anti-nuclear protests - protests that did not take place in France. Luis Echavarri is director-general of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, an arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

"The difference between Germany and France, in my opinion, is the reaction of the society for nuclear," said Echavarri. "I think we have to take into account that the social situation of nuclear power in Germany has not been very good in the last 20-25 years. However, in France, there is a feeling in the society that nuclear power is in the best interests of France."

Those divisions are mirrored elsewhere in Europe.

"There are a few countries - like Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland - which have been very clearly saying that they were going to shut down someday their nuclear power plants and they are not going to construct more. But at the same time, there are many other countries which have stated that they are going to continue operating existing nuclear power plants and that, in addition, they are going to build more," said Echavarri.

But even in France, Fukushima has raised concerns about nuclear power. They're raised at town hall meetings - especially now, as the country gears up for April presidential elections.

Sarkozy's main rival, Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande, wants to reduce France's dependence on nuclear energy but not end it altogether.

But Yannick Rousselet, who heads nuclear issues at Greenpeace France, believes this is the beginning of the end.

"I think there is a lot of change in the opinion. They are not in favor of stopping today. But clearly, I think now a big majority of people think that we must phase out," said Rousselet.

Public alarm was raised in December, when Greenpeace broke into two power stations in France, to highlight their vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Overall, Rousselet says, French reactors are vulnerable.

"We can have lots of different problems of safety in France," he said. "The problem is that we are not ready for that. We are absolutely not ready. The reactors are not ready. And the answer is not ready."

Bertrand Barre, advisor to French nuclear company Areva, disagrees. "I think people in France are safe. But of course, in nuclear as in any other activity, there is always a residual risk. The risk zero doesn't exist," he said.

Barre says new European Union stress tests will make the reactors even better able to cope with disaster - a claim rejected by nuclear energy critics like Rousselet.   

The two sides are also divided over the cost of nuclear power generation - and the possibility of depending entirely on renewables like solar and wind energy.  What is certain is that a year after Fukushima, nuclear power remains a key element of Europe's energy equation.

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Comment Sorting
by: pete
March 12, 2012 7:34 PM
What the French don't tell you is that they ran out of uranium in the 1980s, and the world is past peak uranium, and will stop turning bombs into fuel under megatons to megawatts in 2013! There is an imminent uranium shortage. We are also at peak coal and natural gas, and peak oil was back in 2006 according to the IEA. "Renewables" are a joke, and are worse for the environment than fossil fuels. We have reached the limits to growth, and must now power down.

by: Paxus Calta
March 09, 2012 7:47 PM
They are going to tell you that we can learn from Fukushima and continue with building more reactors. What they are not going to tell you, is that much less sever weather cause a near meltdown inside the US last summer.

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