European Nuclear Economy – A Survey

About The Extensive Use Of Nuclear
Energy In The European Union
Vortrag in Hiroshima, 4. August 2006
von Hartwig Berger

The European Union (EU) is a community with an extensive use of nuclear energy. Presently, in all 25 member states there are 148 nuclear reactors in operation, with a capacity of 135.000 megawatt (MW). Therefore, the European nuclear industry represents one third of the 443 reactors worldwide, corresponding to 36% of the currently global nuclear capacity. 30% of the electricity consumption in the EU is covered by nuclear power.
Add to this the military sector, with Great Britain and France disposing of nuclear weapons. And, albeit the “cold war” has finished 17 years ago, US-nuclear rockets and nuclear arms are stored in Germany and perhaps in Spain up to now. When evaluating the potential risks, one has to take into account, that the US government is still defending the option of first nuclear strikes and military actions with so called “tactical” nuclear arms. We have also to take in account, that Jacques Chirac, the French president, recently declared nuclear attacks being a possible response to states who seem to support terrorist actions.

The nuclear outfit of EU is part of its history right from its start. Only a few months after the EU was founded, namely in 1957, the six founding states signed the so-called Euratom treaty, intending thus to promote and to develop nuclear energy. For example by financing research and development, the nuclear sector receives more support than all other energy sources together.

But since the foundation of Euratom the global situation has profoundly changed. Today the central aims that led to the EURATOM treaty are no more valid and clearly falsified. By now nobody defends anymore the idea of developing nuclear power as the dominant energy. Also, the idea of making the nuclear technology independent from limited uranium resources by using fast breeder reactors, is clearly illusory. Furthermore, EURATOM has ignored crucial problems of the nuclear economy, as there are safety and risks of nuclear power plants, criteria for the stockage of nuclear waste etc.

Nevertheless, affiliation to Euratom remains a prerequisite for EU-membership, regardless of using nuclear energy or not. The attempts of various member states and of environmental non-governmental organisations to stop Euratom are continuously blocked by the nuclear lobby and nuclear states.
In fact, the European community is deeply divided on issues concerning nuclear economy.

One half of the member states, 13 from 25, doesn´t work with any nuclear power at all. But the pro-nuclear group will be strengthened in 2007 or 2008, when Bulgaria and Rumania, with 6 nuclear reactors both, will affiliate. On the other hand, there are some reactors in middle-east Europe which are to be shut down. This was a condition for EU-membership, because of their shortcomings in security and risk prevention.

Italy stopped already 1987 its nuclear industry, in Austria a popular plebiscite in 1978 brought the same result. 4 member states have decided to finish with nuclear energy within a foreseeable space of time, Germany being the most important. At present, Germany covers 28% of the total EU nuclear electricity with 17 working reactors. Since 2002 it is forbidden by law to build new nuclear reactors. For the existing 19 reactors there is fixed a limited amount of electricity production, corresponding to about 32-33 years of life-time. In 2004 and 2005 2 small reactors were put out of function. 4 reactors are to be closed until 2010, 4 until 2015, 7 until 2020 and the last one probably in 2022.

Notwithstanding, there are continuous political conflicts concerning this nuclear law. The two right wing parties, christian democrats and liberals, have repeatedly announced to be willing to revise the law. But since the social democrats didn´t change their mind, the law is still in force under the new governmental coalition of christian democrats and social democrats. Nevertheless, there is continuous pressure from the 4 most important energy enterprises, which all work with nuclear reactors. They are lobbying to get longer time-allowances for their reactors. Today, the result of the continuous conflict between pro- and anti-nuclear pressure-groups in Germany has to be regarded as an open one.

Belgium, Holland and Sweden also decided to stop nuclear economy in the coming years. In Belgium the existing 7 reactors are to be closed between 2015 and 2025, Holland will probably stop the one remaining reactor in 2013. Sweden already decided 1980 through a plebiscite to finish with nuclear industry in 2010. But this decision will not be carried out. Only 2 of the 12 reactors were closed, in 1999 and 2005. In february 2006 the parliament decided to end with generating electricity by nuclear as well as fossil fuels in 2021.

In Spain, which is producing 7% of the nuclear electricity in the EU the situation remains unclear. The socialist government has announced 2004 to finish with nuclear power in 20 years. But till now there isn´t any law or action to realise this purpose. One of the arguments advanced against it is the bad balance of climate protection in Spain, the most worse of all European countries. Remember that the Spanish commitment in the Kyoto-protocol and the EU-agreement is to limit the growth of climate-effective gases to 15% from 1990 to 2010. But in 2005 the quantity of these emissions in Spain had already grown to 53%!. The energy companies and other economic sectors, which in part are responsible for the huge failure in climate protection, argue that ending with nuclear power would result in a total disaster for the Spanish climate commitment.

On the other hand nuclear power is extremely unpopular in Spanish civil society. The last opinion poll, hold in 2005, gave just 16% pro-nuclear responses.

In general, attitude towards nuclear industry is rather heterogenous in the EU. But all in all the negative opinions are clearly dominant: 7% are totally favouring and 30% lightly favouring nuclear power, while there is a total disagreement of 24% and light disagreement of 31%. There are strong differences between the national societies. The people of northern as well as middle-east Europe generally have a more positive attitude towards nuclear power, whereas southern European people a clearly negative. In the former (state-)socialist countries the opinion on nuclear power is motivated by a still unbroken and sometimes uncritical belief in technical progress.
Recently there are strong voices coming up in Europe arguing for new nuclear projects. These plans are the most concrete in Finland and France.

The construction of a reactor with 1.600 megawatt in Finland is imminent, the costs amount to 3 billion € and are granted with extremely low interests of 2,5% by European banks. The instance is instructive: In past as well in present it is difficult to realize nuclear projects without direct or indirect subventions. Finland would be able to gain the same capacity of electricity production by natural gas with 40% of the nuclear costs, and could use the waste warmth for heating too, which is well important in a northern country. The plans for nuclear revival in Europe are therefore also questionable for economic reasons.

The second new project, with a capacity of 1.600 megawatt too, is to be realised in France, on the seashore of the Atlantic. The main reason for this project is the fear of a competition gap in nuclear matters. In France, as well as in most European countries, the interest of the young generation in nuclear science and technology was and is decreasing steadily. As an extreme example I quote Germany, where in 5 years only 2 students took a full nuclear option. In France the new reactor is mainly needed in the hope to push motivation.

France is the “core country” in the European nuclear economy, with 59 reactors corresponding to 48% of the total EU-capacity. About 80% of the French electricity consumption is covered by nuclear deliverance. The company, “Electricité de France” (EdF) is yet in state property. EdF is until now successfully preventing a liberalisation of the internal energy market by its monopol status. The nuclear option is favoured by a large majority of the political class, including socialists, communists and most trade unions. But – the pro- nuclear orientation in politics doesn´t reflect nearly one half of society: The French people is deeply divided, with 52% in favour and 44% against nuclear energy.

The actually most active anti-nuclear movement of Europe can be observed in France, organised as a network of more than 700 regional groups and with a membership of about 14.000 persons. In actions and demonstrations there are mainly young people involved. So serious conflicts are to be expected in the coming years, if the political class decides to replace the old reactors by a new generation. The dating of massive nuclear rebuilding is unclear, because the EdF wants to fix longer life-times for their reactors, of 55 or 60 years. If these plans are realised, more lack of security and a higher probability of fatal nuclear accidents will be the consequence.

France, as well as England, has developed an extensive plutonium economy. In 1986 the so far largest fast breeder reactor, the “Super-Phenix”, started to work, having a capacity of 1.200 megawatt. This project ended in an economic desaster. In 1998 the reactor had to be closed, having working only 19 months and with a “stranded” investment of 10 billion €.

Well in function is reprocessing the power reactor fuel in La Hague, which is able to transform 1.600 tons of nuclear fuel per year. Together with the British plant for reprocessing fuel in Sellafield ( with a capacity of 1.500 tons) it is responsible for the worst nuclear contaminations in Europe, particularly in the Northern Atlantic. The consequences are already alarming: The rate of leucemia (blood cancer) between children in the surroundings of La Hague is three times higher than at national level. The ground water beneath the factory is contaminated, the radioactivity of the waste water entering into the sea is extremely high.

The twin brother of Le Hague, the British fuel reprocessing plant Sellafield, surely is well known in Japan: In 1999 it was responsible of falsifying papers of nuclear fuel delivered to Japan. The most serious nuclear accident in Europe before Chernobyl took place in Sellafield: the burning of a plutonium reactor. It is estimated that more than 30 persons died in the following years by leucemia, due to the contamination.

It is estimated that about 1.000 persons died in the following years as a consequence of the contamination that followed. Last year the board of Sellafield had to admit serious failures in the registration of plutonium in reprocessing. 30 kg of the high dangerous stuff is lacking, nobody knows if by robbery or by errors in registration. The quantity would be sufficient to construct 3 nuclear bombs.

The future of nuclear energy in the EU is open, discussion is going on. A strong factor favouring the nuclear is the economic and political power of the companies which are engaged in this technology. They are favoured by the oligopolist structures in the energy market and by traditional close links with politics and state bureaucracy. They have a fundamental financial interest in longer life-time of nuclear reactors as enormous profits are guaranteed once that credits for investment are repayed. On the other hand we have to be aware of the growth of risks in the European nuclear industry due to the wear and tear of inner material exposed enduringly to radioactive rays.

The pro-nuclear group in the EU is strengthened with the new membership auf the east-european countries, which in general are quite uncritical in regard to nuclear risks and more optimistic in evaluating the possibilities of nuclear technology. Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary have concrete plans for new reactors, Lituania and Polonia are discussing this issue. We must be worried about the very low security standards there, because the EU so far hasn´t succeeded in declaring common security standards. The danger of security dumping has already been demonstrated in two nuclear projects in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, finished just before joining the EU.

But there are also economic reasons against a renewal of nuclear technology in the EU. Comparisons with other ways of generating electricity may be illustrative. The nuclear industry is rather expensive. Historically it owes its success to high state subventions. These subventions, more indirect than direct, are still enduring . One example from Germany may illustrate this point: Each nuclear company is required to build up financial reserves for deconstruction of reactors and waste management activities, the so-called decommissioning funds. They are a part of the profits which remains tax-free. Therefore the 4 German nuclear companies are now disposing of together 35 billions of € as money reserve with which they can operate in the national, European and international markets. The enormous danger which nuclear industry is launching with the involved problems of nuclear waste is therefore transformed into an economic privilege on the energy markets.

In some other European countries nuclear deconstruction and waste management is subventioned by the fact that the industry so far has no obligation at all to provide for the financing in future. The state is liable for nuclear decommissioning. There are similar problems concerning liability for nuclear risks too. In Germany for instance the liability sum for each reactor amounted to 250 millions € until the year 2002, after that up to 2,5 billions €. That is a very small proportion if you take into account that a nuclear catastrophe like Chernobyl causes economic costs of perhaps 1.000 billion €, if not more.

The nuclear economy of the EU remains powerful, with financial privileges and strong connections to state politics. Moreover, in state politics you can´t exclude the option of possible nuclear armament. On the other side the is a persistent confrontation with a lively anti-nuclear movement, sustained by strong feelings against “the nuclear” in the society of most European countries. There are many protest movements against nuclear reactors, against new nuclear projects, against nuclear transports or plans for nuclear deposites. And there is a high number of young poeple participating in actions against nuclear power.

There is and there remains also a widespread sensibility concerning the high nuclear risks, at least in the western European societies. In various countries the 20-year anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe led to intensive public debates about these risks. Chernobyl-1986 and the danger of repetition overall in any nuclear reactor isn´t at all forgotten in Europe. In the last years, there is also an enduring discussion with regard to possible terrorist attacks on nuclear plants. But the nuclear companies until now haven´t put any consequences for the security of their reactors.

The European Union continues to be divided on the nuclear industry issue, therefore any reliable predictions about the future of this economic sector aren´t possible for the moment. Sure, strong criticism of “the nuclear” is enduring. But, unfortunately, the nuclear armament with all its consequences, risks and dangers isn´t at present an issue of intense discussion in the EU – though two of its member states dispose of nuclear weapons, though Russia is an immediate neighbour state and though USA hasn´t retired its nuclear rockets from the EU. Even the actually growing international conflicts concerning nuclear proliferation haven´t changed this remarkably passive attitude in the European public opinion. It is an important task for the pacifist as well as the green movements in Europe for the immediate future to engage in changing this mentality and also to pay more attention to the relations between the military and the civil nuclear sector.


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