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EU Member States and Nuclear Power

August 2nd, 2011 by William Nuttall, Professor at Open University

A few years ago I had the good fortune to participate in a European Commission sixth Framework Programme project Coordinating Energy Security in Supply Activities or ‘CESSA’ for short. This project culminated in a book published by Routledge in 2010 entitled: Security of Energy Supply in Europe: Natural Gas, Nuclear, and Hydrogen. I was very pleased to be an editor of that book and to be the author of chapter 8 entitled: Nuclear Energy in the Enlarged European Union.

That chapter served two primary purposes: first it observed that the enlargement of the European Union from 15 to 27 member states had shifted the balance of public policy opinion in favour of nuclear energy. Second it sought to provide insight into two particular countries from the enlargement process: Romania and Lithuania. These countries were chosen because of their very different relationships to Russia during the Cold War.

The paper opens with a brief consideration of the state of EU Member State opinion in 2006 relating to the then EU-15. My author’s assessment was as follows:

Strongly Positive: Finland, France
Weakly Positive: UK, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal
Neutral: Luxembourg, Denmark
Weakly Negative:Italy, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Greece
Strongly Negative: Ireland, Austria

Discussion of the issues underlying my selections is very brief in the book chapter. Hence I would like to take this opportunity to comment on, clarify and correct my assessment of 2006 official attitudes.

My assessments evolved from an opening assessment as presented at the opening CESSA conference held in Berlin, Germany in June 2007. In this posting I shall refer to the later listing published in the book and as reproduced above. Also at this point I must acknowledge a major source of information used to inform much of the text that follows. My thoughts have benefitted greatly from the ideas and data published by the World Nuclear Association (WNA) in its country reports. I commend those assessments to anyone interested in up to date information on national nuclear policies and activities. As this is a ‘blog’ rather than a scholarly article I shall not interrupt my prose with formal citations. If you are curious as to the source of any un-cited information, I suggest it is probably the WNA. Of course what is written here is not necessarily the opinion of any other individual or organisation and I take sole responsibility for what I present here.

The most extreme positions are relatively uncontroversial. My sense remains that Austria and Ireland remain the most officially anti-nuclear states in the EU-15 and this was their status in 2006. Ireland long ago abandoned plans for a nuclear power plant at Cansore Point in the Southeast of the country. Most especially the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 explicitly forbids the relevant government minister from granting statutory permission for a nuclear fission-based power station. Austria has developed a reputation for using its veto power under the Euratom Treaty to block expansion of EU nuclear fission policy to facilitate nuclear new build.

The countries at the other extreme are also similarly straightforward. I selected Finland for the strongly positive list owing to its leading position in the European Nuclear Renaissance for its new build project at Olkiluoto (OL3) and also noting much good progress on policy for nuclear waste management. France is included in the strongly positive list because of its status as the larger user of nuclear electricity generation in the EU-15 with more than 55 power reactors operating. In 2006 such a position was backed by a broad political consensus, not withstanding the fact that, according to Eurobarometer polling the French public are not especially pro-nuclear (see e.g. Europeans and Nuclear Safety poll, published Feb 2007 and based on October-Nov 2006 fieldwork).

The more difficult assessments lie in the intermediate zone between weakly positive and weakly negative. Such assessments are more likely to be open to debate and are more likely to have suffered from my own subjective biases.

In the weakly positive column I placed the United Kingdom. As an assessment of 2006 official opinion this was most strongly affected by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair saying that nuclear power is back on the agenda with a vengeance. I have always been struck by that most remarkably robust turn of phrase. I place the UK in the weakly positive camp notwithstanding that the Labour Governments had dismantled British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) on the back of earlier policies which had seen a complete refocusing or winding-up of world-leading nuclear research laboratories such as those at Harwell and Winfrith. The Conservative Party were, in the summer of 2006, was also supportive of new nuclear investment, but their position was more nuanced. Nuclear power was on their list but only as ‘a last resort’. In the months and years that followed Tony Blair’s 2006 speech the UK has continued to show strengthening interest in nuclear new build.

Some might take issue with my positioning of the Netherlands in the weakly positive group. Factors that shaped my thinking when making my determination include that the Netherlands operated (2006) one small power reactor at Borssele providing approximately 4% of Dutch electricity. The Netherlands also imports nuclear electricity from, for instance, Germany. The Netherlands has a strong nuclear energy research base including national and European facilities in Petten. The Netherlands used to operate one other nuclear power plant (at Dodewaard) but this was shutdown in 1997. It is important to note that in 1994 the Dutch Parliament voted to phase out nuclear power by 2003, but my perceptions were more shaped by the abandonment of that plan in 2005. Furthermore in 2006 a life-extension contract was agreed for the Borssele plant between operators and shareholders. In the couple of years after 2006 prominent public voices, including those of official advisors, started to advocate nuclear new build particular for the Borssele site.

The bottom two entries in my weakly positive list are especially open to debate. In 2006 Spain was widely perceived to be somewhat anti-nuclear, but my assessment was more positive, as it was affected more by actions than by rhetoric. I was most affected by the following observations. First, I acknowledged the highly visible 1983 nuclear phase out decision strongly associated with the Spanish Socialist Party. The 2004 election saw the arrival of Spanish Socialist Workers Party leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as Prime Minister. As such, things could be said to have been bleak for nuclear power in Spain. The situation is reported by pro-nuclear European trade group Foratom to have been that the Socialist Party “has made a strong political statement to progressively phase out nuclear power, but so far no calendar or specific strategy has been fixed.” Putting the political rhetoric to one side, I was very struck by a quiet programme of power plant uprates achieved in the years of interest. The World Nuclear Association advises that in 1988 the Cofrentes plant was uprated 2%, then a further 2.2% in 1998, and a further 5.6% in 2002 and then 1.9% in 2003. A greater than 5% uprate was planned for Almarez at a cost of roughly $50 million. This officially sanctioned quiet progress in generation, together with progress on waste management (for Spain’s once-through fuel cycle) prompted me to allocate weakly positive status, despite the obvious political and governmental rhetoric, which I judged for 2006 to be a mere shadow of the Socialist’s political opposition to nuclear energy in the 1980s.

Portugal appeared at the bottom of my list as it was particularly difficult to assess. While Spain derived approximately 20% of its electricity from nuclear power, Portugal has no nuclear energy programme. It is clear from the Eurobarometer survey mentioned earlier that the Portuguese public are among the most sceptical about nuclear power with only 37% reporting that they believe nuclear power can be operated in a safe manner. In addition they are noteworthy as they self-report that they are among the least well informed about nuclear power. Oscar Gonzalez has considered the prospect of nuclear power in Portugal and he notes that the country has considered the possibility on three occasions 1954, 1974/75 and 2004. The 2004 period included ideas centred on the notion of possible collaboration with Spain. Around 2004 and 2005 many political and public policy voices pointed to the possibility of new nuclear build for Portugal, but Gonzalez observes that the government appeared to regard the topic as ‘taboo’ and the main opposition party had no public position on the issue. In the absence of a power programme, my sense of the Portuguese situation was affected by policy for Research Reactors. The Portuguese Research Reactor (RPI) has operated steadily since 1961 and in the 2006 period was part-way through a partly US funded conversion to Low Enriched Uranium fuel. The facility attracts roughly 2,000 visitors per year mostly students. In summary, the Portuguese position was difficult to assess and I categorised it as weakly positive with some caution.

I reported Luxembourg as holding a neutral position. Perhaps it would have been fairer to say that my sense was that Luxembourg had no position on the nuclear energy issue. According to the 2003 Luxembourg National Report under the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, the country has no nuclear power programme, it has no fuel cycle facilities, it has no research reactor and it has no energy-related radioactive waste. To my impression it has no substantial connection to nuclear issues and no obvious intention to change that situation, hence my allocation of neutrality.

Denmark, I characterised as neutral and here on reflection I now understand I have probably been in error. As former user of nuclear research facilities I may have been swayed by Denmark’s remarkable past achievements in the deployment and use of three research reactors at the world famous Risø Laboratory. By 2006, however that proud past was already just part of history, with the last research reactor having closed in 2001. Risø left the world of nuclear research joining with other non-nuclear laboratories in 2007. I may also have been affected by public attitudes reports for the Danish public which show high levels of understanding of nuclear power’s low greenhouse gas emissions and energy security benefits as reported in the Eurobarometer research mentioned earlier. My assessment, however, should not have been swayed by such metrics. My key omission was to neglect the role that Denmark had played in the shutdown of two Swedish reactors at Barsebäck in 1999 and May 2005. The Barsebäck plant was located only 20km from Denmark’s capital city Copenhagen. The May 2005 events were very close to my main period of concern and clearly revealed an officially anti-nuclear position. My positioning of Denmark in the table should have reflected that reality.

In grouping weakly anti-nuclear countries I put Italy at the top of the list. The most notable fact about Italy and nuclear energy in the middle of the last decade was that of all the EU-15 countries which announced an intention to phase out nuclear power following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, Italy was the only country actually to exit the game. In total three power plants were closed following a November 1987 referendum on the topic. A fourth plant under construction at Montalto di Castro was cancelled when almost complete. Mitigating against positioning Italy as more strongly anti-nuclear in 2006 was the possibility of nuclear power joint ventures under the 2004 Energy Law.

In the years after 2006, official Italian interest in new nuclear build increased significantly. In May 2008 the government would go on to give an explicit push for the idea. This push was to culminate in the 2011 referendum, but more about that later.

The next country assessed as ‘weakly negative’ was Germany. Germany is, I suggest, the most complex EU Member State as regards national attitudes to nuclear power. Germany is home to the liveliest nuclear power politics. The issue of nuclear power can take a central role in the political process in a way not seen in other EU countries. Roughly ¼ of German electricity in 2006 came from nuclear power. In 1998 a Federal coalition government of the Social Democrats and the Greens announced the phase out of nuclear power. A total power production limit of 2623 billion KWh was imposed across all 19 reactors then operating. This was equivalent to an average plant lifetime of only 32 years and less than the 35 years proposed by the electricity industry. Typically the plants would have a 40 year design life with the technical possibility of extension to 60 years. At the time the Christian Democratic opposition said that it would seek to overturn the decision. In the autumn of 2005 a “Grand Coalition” government took power under the leadership of the conservative Angela Merkel. For a while it seemed that nuclear power might recede from the political foreground. On 8 July 2007 the UK Daily Telegraph reported under the headline: “Germany to stay nuclear in Merkel U-turn”. It is also noteworthy that Eurobarometer 2007 reveals that the German public were not as anti-nuclear as might intuitively be expected. Despite small glimmers of a moderation of attitude, in 2006 the German position could not be described as anything other than anti-nuclear.

Next in my weakly anti-nuclear list was Sweden. While perhaps my assessment was overly negative, I should outline that factors which shaped my views. Roughly 40% of Sweden’s electricity comes from nuclear power. In 1980 following the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania the government had decided to phase-out nuclear power. In 1997 a new energy policy permitted some life extensions, but forced the closure of the twin unit Barsebäck plant (see earlier discussion of Denmark’s position). Despite the closure of Barsebäck Swedish nuclear generation has grown as a result of strengthening output from the remaining plants. A dominant factor in my assessment, however, was the special “capacity tax” levied on Swedish nuclear power plants. In January 2006 the tax was doubled. That measure, more than anything else prompted me to classify Sweden as officially anti-nuclear despite the country’s good record in nuclear power plant management and impressive progress on radioactive waste policy.

As we approach the countries towards the bottom of the weakly anti-nuclear list my confidence reduces. Belgium is a case in point. In the middle of the last decade Belgium sourced more than 50% of its power from seven nuclear power reactors. In January 2003 a new Federal Act prohibited the building of new nuclear power plants and limited the life of existing plants to 40 years in the absence of a compelling security of supply crisis. This Act represented official opinion at the time of my assessment.

I note that a study to the Belgian government commissioned by the government, the Commission on Energy 2030, in 2007 recommended the long-term use of nuclear power, but it was never an official position of the state. In 2006 while public attitudes were moderately favourable and while there was some growing discussion of life extension the position could not have been described as anything other than negative. In the months and years that followed I note that position would start to soften until the impact of the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

The final country considered was Greece. Its position might be described as a combination of the neutrality borne of irrelevance seen in Luxembourg and a political consensus of aversion to nuclear power. Like Portugal Greece has a research reactor (GRR-1 pool type reactor) and in the years after 2006 it was upgraded with Korean assistance. In 2006, however, there was little or no visible consideration of nuclear issues and it was most definitely off the national agenda.

With those thoughts in mind I assembled the table published in the CESSA book. However, so much has happened since then.

In the book chapter I also assessed attitudes in similar terms for the newest EU member states. My main observation was that the balance of such attitudes was significantly more pro-nuclear than was seen for the EU-15. Since making such an assessment I have seen no cause to revisit it. Broadly the assessment appears to have been correct, as was my observation that the main driver of official opinion in these newer member states was security of supply.

The two main changes to affect official EU member state attitudes since 2006 have been the financial crisis of 2008/2009 and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant problems in March 2011. These events have been major drivers of a shift in attitudes across Europe. I venture that in the newest member states the biggest impact has come from the financial crisis, while in the EU-15 the clearest impacts have come from the Japanese nuclear crisis.

I suggest that a considered assessment of the ways in which the Fukushima incident has affected official attitudes to the EU-15 would be of great interest. Arguably it is still too soon to undertake such an assessment as some of the technical realities on the ground in Japan remain unknown and some of the political and regulatory dynamics in Europe remain fast moving. It is not the purpose of this post to provide such an assessment. Rather the recognition that such an assessment might be of interest prompted to me to seek to record the reasoning behind my original subjective assessments and to clarify contentious points and possible errors.

Despite my declaration that I do not seek here to review changes in EU-15 official attitudes, I suggest that in order to substantiate my claim that such a review would be interesting I offer the following preliminary personal observations.

Two countries (the UK and Finland) appear to have responded with a desire to hold their nerve and to avoid knee-jerk instinctive decision-making. In the UK a careful evidence-based assessment of the relevance of the Japanese experience is underway, but thus far UK government policy appears to maintain its momentum. New build plans in Finland (e.g. Olkiluoto-4) press ahead.

The most visible policy consequence was the German government’s decision following heavy electoral losses to the anti-nuclear Green Party in regional elections, to abandon plans to delay the previously negotiated shutdown plans discussed earlier. This despite retaining the nuclear levy which had been agreed with the power companies as a quid-pro-quo for that extension. This political decision by Germany has had significant knock-on consequences for energy markets and energy policy on the Continent.

Another visible outcome was the heavy referendum defeat experienced by the Italian government led by Silvio Berlusconi. The referendum had been planned as a means by which Italy’s nuclear policy could be reversed permitting a return to new build. In the weeks and months following the Fukushima accident the Italian government tried unsuccessfully to postpone the referendum from its 12 June 2011 date. The scale of the defeat (more than 94% of voters opposing a return to nuclear power) suggests that nuclear energy will be off the agenda in Italy for many years to come.

Finally I would like to mention the most surprising consequence – a softening of French policy towards nuclear power. In the days and weeks after Fukushima a remarkable political discourse emerged in France where previously there has been a high level of political consensus behind nuclear power. Occasionally Socialist Party politicians might have expressed some scepticism, but generally the Party endorsed the nation’s nuclear ambitions. For the centre-right UMP Party support for nuclear power has been rock-solid for decades. However, on Friday 8 July 2011 French Energy Minister and UMP member Eric Besson said in an interview on the radio station Europe 1 that France would include a nuclear phase-out scenario by 2050, or even by 2040 in a range of possible energy policy scenarios going forward. He was quick to stress that such a scenario did not represent his own preference, or that of the French Government, but nevertheless it would be considered among a range of options. His stated that his preference would be for nuclear power to settle at roughly 2/3rds of French electricity generation, slightly below current levels. As such, official positions may not have changed much, but the reality is that such an opening-up of official thinking is profound in a French context. While clearly the accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant must have had a role changing the French debate, it is also important to stress that for many years nuclear power in France has not been especially popular with the public. In the 2007 Eurobarometer report French public attitudes to the risks of nuclear power were in the middle of the distribution of EU member states. 56% of the French public reported that in their opinion the risks of nuclear energy outweighed the benefits, while only 33% took an opposing view. Fukushima will have done nothing to reduce French public concerns regarding nuclear energy risks and the recent softening of the framing of French energy policy appears to reflect such political realities.

The years 2009-2011 have been turbulent ones indeed for nuclear energy policy in the European Union. In several respects my previously recorded assessments of EU member state attitudes are now out of date. I venture that the changes are not as profound as recent newspaper headlines might have implied, but I acknowledge that real shifts have occurred. I see the potential for useful research into such matters, but, as I have no such research to report, I shall stop writing now.

William J. Nuttall, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

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