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?”