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The reasons for a European public debate on nuclear energy

May 30th, 2011 by Sami Andoura, Notre Europe

The debate over the future of nuclear energy must not be confined to experts, nor to politicians and business leaders. This is a crucial choice for the future of our societies, and it calls for a public debate. The debate must be transparent and enlightened, and it must place in perspective the advantages and risks of nuclear energy in order that every person is able to make an informed opinion.

Although not entirely comparable, the current Japanese crisis is a reminder of the Chernobyl accident, the worse catastrophe in the history of civil nuclear power (INES level 7). The environmental and human consequences of the explosion at the Soviet plant were terrible: irradiation of people, the release of a radioactive cloud which crossed Europe, the displacement of thousands of people and soil contamination for several decades. Twenty-five years later, no definitive solution has been found for the confinement of the reactor or the decontamination of the surrounding land, of which an exclusion zone extends across a perimeter of 30km. An international donors’ conference met in Kiev in April 2011 to work towards a lasting solution and to find the necessary funding, hitherto lacking – including € 800m for the reactor’s confinement structure alone. The nuclear industry defends itself by claiming that each past accident has raised awareness of the various major safety risks of nuclear energy, and that this has led to a renewal and strengthening of prevention procedures and a rethinking of power plants in accordance with the demonstrated risks.

A public debate could well take place within a strictly national context. Some of the numerous arguments for and against nuclear energy are summarised below.

The need for a complementary debate at European level

Nuclear energy in Europe inevitably has a transnational and even continental dimension. A major incident in a member state’s plant would inevitably have safety implications for neighbouring countries – especially when near to a border, as is the case for instance of the French Fessenheim plant, near the German and Swiss borders. Countries deciding to avoid nuclear power because of its risks would find themselves indirectly exposed by virtue of the sovereign choices made by a neighbouring state, and their safety would depend directly on the safety policy of that state. Moreover, the current integration of Europe’s energy markets and networks is making the option of ending a nuclear programme somewhat artificial, since it will remain possible to import energy from nuclear sources in other countries. This is the case between France, Germany and Austria.

For all these reasons, it would be artificial to limit this debate to national confines. On the contrary, it is both opportune and necessary that the discussion take place at European level. However, currently there exists no instrument which would allow for such a debate. One possibility would be for member states to organise separate national debates which would take place in the same conditions and at the same time – as is already the case for the stress tests. An intermediate solution would be regional: neighbouring states belonging to a shared region could organise collective debates (for example France, Germany and Benelux; the Nordic and Baltic countries; the Iberian region; the Višegrad countries; or South-Eastern Europe).

One final option for encouraging a European public debate could be the “European citizens’ initiative” established by the Lisbon Treaty. In concrete terms, a petition containing at least one million signatures coming from a significant number of countries would oblige the Commission to examine this specific issue and the possibility of presenting proposals within the EU’s areas of competence.

Sami Andoura, Senior Research Fellow at Notre Europe, Pierre Coëffé and Maria Dobrostamat interns at Notre Europe

P.S. This contribution is an excerpt from a Notre Europe policy brief “Nuclear Energy in Europe: What Future?

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One Response to “The reasons for a European public debate on nuclear energy”

  1. Vincent Labouré Says:

    It is indeed appropriate to have a public debate on such major issues as energy policies. However, although decisions cannot be perfect, it is absolutely necessary not to change them at every new presidential term. It has to be decided if not once and for all at least with sufficient clarity for the industry to adapt. This is where the pure democracy reaches its limits. This is the reason why energy policies cannot be left only to public debate. This is why journalists will always complain about the lack of choice given to the public when it comes to such issues.

    How could it be any different? After Fukushima everybody would be tempted to say: “no more nuclear energy!” After the accident of British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, everybody would like to say: “no more oil!” After the accident of Total in the North Sea, why wouldn’t one say: “no more natural gas!”?
    Whether the public prefers global warming, nuclear risks and waste, environmental impacts due for instance to exploitation of shale gas or a little bit of all of those, would be a legitimate debate. Unfortunately this is not how the question is asked. Besides it would be an illusion to believe that renewable energies can solve the problem by themselves in particular since it is very unlikely that the people would be ready to have more expensive energies and more shortage especially during economic crises.

    Therefore a public debate can only occur if two conditions are reunited: first, all the consequences of a decision should be assessed. That implies particularly that no solution should be considered independently (which is of course not easy to do). Second the choice cannot be changed all the time. Let’s take the example of the United States: by developing massively the exploitation of shale gas they should become self-sufficient by the year 2035. One could argue that this decision would imply the degradation of their environment as well as the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Rather they focus more on reducing their dependence on foreign countries and on the jobs it could create. At least they took a decision. On the contrary France refused to even estimate its own capacities of shale gas while many politicians are afraid to support nuclear energy. And we do not want either to depend on Russian natural gas. All of this shows how afraid we are to take a decision. However isn’t delaying the decision the worst option of all?

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