The 27 countries in the European Union derived 31 percent of their electricity needs and 14.6 percent of their primary energy consumption from nuclear power in 2010. In roughly the last eight years, there has been a considerable momentum on the Continent to boost that capacity. Countries that had halted the construction of new reactors (Germany and Sweden) or effectively abandoned nuclear power altogether (Italy and Poland) had been considering reversing their moratoriums, phase-outs and outright bans.
Three factors spurred the momentum toward a nuclear Renaissance in Europe: Almost 25 years of accident-free nuclear industry since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; technological improvements in the design of reactors; and a geopolitical impetus to wrestle the Continent from the grip of Russian energy exports following a number of politically motivated Russian natural gas cutoffs. There has also been a concerted push by Europe’s indigenous nuclear energy industry to open up the potential EU market of 400 million people for the sale of its latest generation of nuclear reactors.
The March 11 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake in Japan and its subsequent effect on the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants has dampened — and even ended — enthusiasm for nuclear power in some European nations, however.
The combination of the powerful earthquake and massive tsunami that hit Japan’s Pacific Coast where the two affected power plants were situated sparked the nuclear crisis in Japan. The Fukushima accident is still ongoing and developing. It is at this point assumed that the reactors in the nuclear plants in question were shut down immediately following the seismic activity, as they were designed to. The onsite backup generators that were supposed to cool down the core also shut down about an hour after the earthquake, however. The leading theory is that they were damaged by the subsequent tsunami.
Europe is unlikely to see an earthquake of similar proportions and even less likely to see a similar tsunami. Even so, a tradition of anti-nuclear industry activism in a number of European countries and contemporary political dynamics could engender a move against a European nuclear revival post-Fukushima. It is important to emphasize that not all European countries are similarly situated. France and Germany, for example, approach nuclear energy from diametrically opposed perspectives. In France, the nuclear power industry — and military capacity it spawned — for decades has been perceived as a guarantor of French independence and global relevance, whereas in Germany, nuclear power has negative connotations due to the country’s nearly 50-year status as the likely nuclear battlefield between the Cold War superpowers. Environmental movements accordingly have evolved along different lines, and national psyches approach nuclear power from starkly different perspectives.
The European countries below are listed from most to least likely to see plans for nuclear projects altered in the wake of the Fukushima accident.
Germany’s nuclear program was the first to be politically damaged by the Fukushima accident. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 14 put on hold for three months plans approved narrowly by the Bundestag in October 2010 to prolong the life of Germany’s 17 nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years, a decision that is still contested before the highest German constitutional court. On March 15, Merkel extended the German government response by stating that the nuclear reactors that began operating before 1980 would be shut down and remain so for the period of the announced three-month moratorium. The Isar 1 nuclear reactor in the city of Essenbach has begun preparation for a shutdown. Government officials in the state of Brandenburg and the city of Berlin have also asked Poland to reconsider its plans for a nuclear revival.
The decision by Berlin is not surprising to STRATFOR for two reasons: long-held anti-nuclear sentiment in the country that draws its roots in the country’s Cold War role and the contemporary political environment.
The Cold War and the status of Germany as a pseudo-independent battleground between East and the West have had a profound impact on German sentiment toward nuclear power. Peace and Green movements that emerged from Europe’s 1968 student protests were grafted on to the reality in West Germany that the country lacked real say over its foreign policy and would most likely be first to face annihilation in a nuclear exchange between the two Cold War superpowers. Nuclear power — and the hosting of U.S. nuclear weapons in West Germany — became the ultimate symbol of Berlin’s subservience to U.S. interests. The 1979 Three Mile Island incident in the United States and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine greatly reinforced this anti-nuclear sentiment. No reactors were built in Germany after Chernobyl. To this day, Germans remain far more skeptical of the benefits of nuclear technology — from food irradiation to nuclear power plants — than most Europeans.
Strong environmentalist and anti-nuclear-weapon sentiment in Germany led to the emergence of Germany’s Green Party, which is one of the world’s most successful environmentalist parties in terms of actually getting into government. The Green Party negotiated the Nuclear Exit Law during its time in a governing coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 2000. The law called for all German nuclear reactors to be shut down by 2021. Merkel had to uphold the agreement when she entered a Grand Coalition with the SPD in 2005 but was vocal about the need to change it throughout the duration of her party’s uneasy marriage with the center-left. She ultimately got her way following September 2009 elections and the formation of a new coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP).
The 12-year extension, however, has been largely unpopular in Germany. Polls have shown a consistent unease about nuclear power. The 2010 Eurobarometer study — which has standardized methodology across 27 EU member states and is therefore the only Continent-wide study we can rely on for an assessment of European attitudes toward nuclear power — shows 52 percent of respondents in Germany wanting the current level of nuclear power reliance reduced — by far the greatest percentage among major European countries. Considering that the study was conducted more than a year before the Fukushima accident, it is likely that the sentiments toward nuclear power have only turned more negative. Merkel has countered that nuclear reactors need to be extended to act as a “bridge” to renewable energy. Her opponents among the environmental and left wing parties have argued that the bridge argument is a pretext for the center-right to facilitate the development of new power plants in the future.
The center-left argument may not be far from the truth. While Germany is indeed one of the global leaders in renewable energy — it derived about 16 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2009 — it is difficult to see how it would manage to replace the approximately 27 percent of electricity derived from nuclear power with renewable sources by 2035. Although studies show that it would be possible to accomplish that task, the shutting down of reactors according to the Nuclear Exit Law would have begun already in 2010, with four in total shut down by 2011. Replacing so much lost capacity on the front end with renewable sources would be difficult if not impossible. The alternative is turning to other conventional sources — namely Russian natural gas — to fill in the gap left by abandoning nuclear power. Despite Berlin’s generally positive relationship with Moscow, Germany does want to give Russia any more of an upper hand in its energy relationship. Germany already gets around 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, a number that may very well increase with the coming online of the 55 billion-cubic-meter (bcm) Nordstream natural gas pipeline at the end of 2011. Merkel may therefore have gambled on the issue for the sake of German energy independence, calculating that popular sentiment would catch up to the geopolitical needs of the country at some point.
This calculation has now backfired on Merkel. The German government already has suffered a blow to its popularity due to Berlin’s signing off on the eurozone bailouts of Greece and Ireland and Merkel’s insistence on defending the euro in perpetuity with a major 500 billion euro ($698 billion) bailout facility. There have been a number of other problems for Merkel’s CDU along the way, from general infighting of the coalition government to a number of high-profile resignations, namely that of President Horst Koehler, the forced resignation of Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, and the announced retirement of Bundesbank President Axel Weber.
Germany is set to hold seven state elections in 2011; the first on Feb. 20, held in the city-state of Hamburg, saw Merkel’s CDU defeated. Merkel’s policy of extending the life of current reactors has come at a very bad time, especially with a critical state, Baden-Wuerttemberg, holding elections March 27. Baden-Wuerttemberg is home to Stuttgart, one of Germany’s most important industrial centers, has the third-largest GDP and population and is considered a conservative stronghold that the CDU has ruled since 1953. It is also the site of four major reactors — and the site of a March 12 protest of nearly 50,000 against the extension of nuclear power that was planned before the Fukushima accident. The situation for Merkel’s CDU in the state is very serious, perhaps prompting the CDU Baden-Wuerttemberg environment minister to say in an interview March 14 that the two oldest reactors in the state could be closed down in 2011 if Merkel continues the moratorium, likely a move to improve the CDU’s electoral chances two weeks before the election.
Merkel is likely positioning the three-month suspension on extending the life of reactors due to the upcoming state elections in Saxony-Anhalt on March 20 and in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatine on March 27, buying time until the Fukushima accident blows over — though it is unclear if or when that will happen. Furthermore, with sentiment against nuclear power in Germany ever strong, and now resurging, the industry’s future in Germany looks very grim. The wider question is what will happen to Merkel’s CDU if the accident leads to a loss of Baden-Wuerttemberg. Such a loss would bring back memories of the SPD’s loss of its traditional power base of North-Rhine Westphalia in 2005, a loss that ultimately forced Gerhard Schroeder to call early federal elections leading the way for Merkel to assume power. Political instability in Germany at a time when the eurozone crisis is ongoing would have ramifications far beyond just the nuclear industry. While ultimately the alternative to CDU — an SPD-Green government — would have a policy toward Europe not much different from Merkel’s, the election campaign in the midst of the ongoing European economic troubles would have the potential to cause uncertainty. Stakes in Germany are therefore larger than just for the future of nuclear industry, but the future for nuclear power certainly does not look good in the EU’s largest economy and country.
Italy was one of the first European countries to build nuclear reactors for power generation. Unlike the rest of Europe, it did not feel impelled to commit itself to nuclear power after the 1973 oil shocks due to its relatively plentiful natural gas deposits, which at the end of 1988 stood at 330 bcm. In 1988, Italy’s domestic natural gas production was able to satisfy about 40 percent of its natural gas consumption, but by 2008 that percent has dwindled to just less than 11 percent. Because of the decision not to build any nuclear power plants in the window between 1973 and 1979 (prior to the Three Mile Island incident), before the public opinion in Europe soured on nuclear power, Italy now finds itself importing around 14 percent of its electricity needs from abroad and in absolute terms is one of the largest electricity importers in the world. Its large electricity imports mean Italy has higher electricity costs than most of its European neighbors.
A high reliance on natural gas for electricity generation also means a high reliance on natural gas imports. While Germany imported in 2008 more natural gas from Russia (36.2 bcm) than Italy (24.5 bcm), Italy is far more dependent on natural gas for electricity generation than Germany (54 percent compared to only around 18 percent, respectively). It imports 29 percent of its natural gas needs from Russia, a number likely to rise in 2011 due to the interruption of Libya’s exports to Italy via the Greenstream underwater pipeline. This means that Italy not only imports electricity directly from its neighbors — most actually comes from French nuclear power plants — it also imports the bulk of the natural gas used to generate electricity from its natural gas-burning power plants. The unrest in North Africa has highlighted the danger of relying on energy imports from unstable regimes like Libya.
All this makes Italy the European country most in need of nuclear energy, but the anti-nuclear movement in Italy has long been active and powerful, and it became stronger following Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the 2010 Eurobarometer survey, 62 percent of Italians wanted to see Italy — which generates no electricity from nuclear power — either reduce or retain the same level of electricity generation from nuclear power.
The center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi — which is becoming increasingly unpopular due to a number of scandals and ongoing economic troubles — could now see the opposition use its May 2009 decision to reverse the ban on nuclear power to rally disparate forces against the government. While enthusiasm for the center-left Italian parties is not high, nuclear power is a clear issue that people can identify with and rally around, allowing the center-left to mobilize against Berlusconi. Furthermore, unlike most of their West European brethren, anti-nuclear activists in Italy can point to regular seismic activity in their country, particularly in Italy’s south as a reason to take the Fukushima accident seriously.
Moreover, the Italian Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the opposition’s call for a referendum on construction of nuclear power plants in January, which means that a referendum on the question will now likely be held between April and June. Popular angst against Berlusconi’s government combined with the Fukushima accident could spell an end to the nuclear revival in Italy when the referendum is held in mid-2011.
There has been a consensus in the United Kingdom among the center-left Labour party and center-right Conservative party that a return to nuclear power is necessary for British energy independence. Like the government under former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the current government favors building new nuclear reactors, and it wants to build around 10 new reactors by 2020. Following the Fukushima accident, British Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne ordered an official investigation to determine what London can learn from the Japanese nuclear crisis on March 14.
The United Kingdom only derives 18 percent of its energy from nuclear power, with one reactor built since the Chernobyl disaster. This is in large part due to considerable public opposition to nuclear power. Anti-nuclear protesters in the United Kingdom are among the most active in Europe, and are notorious for at times using militant tactics. The Fukushima disaster could rally nuclear opponents once again. The current junior coalition member, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has traditionally been skeptical of nuclear power and has had to mute its traditional views to become part of the governing coalition with the Conservatives. Thus far, the LDP lawmakers have remained silent on the issue and have not opposed the coalition consensus, but this could change if the Fukushima accident begins to resonate with the public. The LDP already has suffered a loss in popularity for working with the Conservatives on a number of issues, and it may not be able to avoid an argument with its senior coalition partner if it wants to hold on to some semblance of its electoral base.
For London, the issue ultimately is one of energy independence. British reserves of North Sea natural gas — which in 2008 supplied the United Kingdom with 45 percent of its electricity generation — are dwindling, going from 760 bcm at the end of 1998 to 340 bcm at the end of 2008. The United Kingdom will increasingly have to rely on imports from Norway to satisfy its natural gas needs. Nonetheless, importing natural gas from Norway is far different than importing it from Russia, which means that nuclear energy is less of a national security issue for the United Kingdom than it may be for other European countries. This means that the United Kingdom has alternatives to nuclear power, which casts the fate of the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom into doubt. Despite the strong interparty consensus on the issue, therefore, the United Kingdom remains a country where public opinion — and anti-nuclear energy activists — will have to be monitored carefully to gauge which way the country will go following the Fukushima incident.
The Swedish center-right government of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt reversed a 1980 ban on nuclear power by a 174-172 vote in June 2010 following the Three Mile Island incident. At the time, it was feared that the ban reversal would be short-lived, as national elections were scheduled for September 2010 and Reinfeldt’s center-right coalition’s future was uncertain. But Reinfeldt stayed in power, albeit in a minority government. On the question of nuclear power, the government has the support of the far-right Sweden Democrats. Therefore, the lifting of the ban is, for the time being, secure. Reinfeldt said in an interview March 13 that there would be no review and that the “decision still stands.”
Unlike most European countries, Sweden actually had an independent nuclear weapons program in the 1950s. Given its proximity to Germany and Russia, Stockholm pursued a policy of neutrality backed by an aggressive military posture and a domestic military industrial complex. Its reactor at Agesta, now closed down, was widely believed to be created to produce weapons-grade plutonium. For Stockholm, nuclear power was seen as the ultimate guarantor of safety, even though it officially abandoned its weapons program. Nuclear power, therefore, does not carry the negative associations in Sweden as it does in Germany.
Sweden produces roughly all its electricity from nuclear power and hydropower equally. The problem for Stockholm is that its hydropower capacity has largely been tapped out, and the country has produced roughly the same amount of electricity since its last nuclear reactor came online in 1985. To boost electricity production, the country would either have to import electricity — probably from Finnish nuclear power plants — or natural gas from Norway or Russia. The government, however, has made it clear that it does not want to boost the use of greenhouse gases, an issue for which it has the support of environmental groups.
The strong support of nuclear power by a government that was just elected — a government that is committed to reducing its reliance on greenhouse gases — means Stockholm is likely to stick to its decision to revive its nuclear industry, at least while the current minority government holds power. Moreover, Stockholm can increase the capacity of current reactors via improvements on the current plants and still make a considerable impact on its electricity output. Therefore, it can avoid the controversial issue of building new plants on new sites.
The Polish government only recently announced its decision to create a legal framework for building nuclear power reactors. The decision was made in February and will likely be voted on by the parliament in June. Support for nuclear power is strong in Poland, with data from the 2010 Eurobarometer survey indicating that 30 percent of respondents wanted an increased use of nuclear power, the highest results in the European Union. With nearly 40 million people and Central Europe’s largest economy (the European Union’s eighth largest), Polish entry into the nuclear club is significant.
Poland never had a need for nuclear power plants because its plentiful coal deposits have always provided it with ample supply of domestic fuel for electricity generation. To this day, coal provides 94 percent of Poland’s electricity. The Soviet Union planned to construct a nuclear power plant in Poland, but the plans were abandoned in 1990 due to a combination of lack of necessity, environmental fears post Chernobyl and general anti-Soviet sentiment. The Polish public essentially saw nuclear power as part and parcel of Soviet domination, and the half-completed Zarnowiec plant was scrapped after half a billion dollars had been spent on construction.
Today, however, nuclear power is seen as a way to escape dependence on Russian natural gas exports. With the European Union pushing curbs on greenhouse gases, Poland’s over-dependence on coal is seen as a potential liability. Poland is therefore looking for alternatives in shale gas exploration, liquefied natural gas and, now, nuclear power. Until these alternatives are in place, Poland will have to increase its dependence on piped Russian natural gas as it builds at least three new natural gas power plants, one of which is planned to be built jointly with Russia’s Gazprom by 2017.
With national security issues looming large, Poland has no intention of abandoning its plans for nuclear energy, something Prime Minister Donald Tusk made clear immediately after the Fukushima accident. Tusk feels comfortable sticking to his decision because his main political opponents at the upcoming general elections in October, the right-wing conservative Law and Justice Party, have traditionally been pro-nuclear power as well.
With 74 percent of electricity derived from nuclear power in 2010, France is by far Europe’s most committed nuclear power user. For France, nuclear power is not just about energy independence, but also about global relevance. Its independent nuclear arsenal is seen as a guarantor of its foreign policy independence and one of the pillars of its status as a European power. The French public’s association with nuclear power is therefore starkly different than that of most European countries, certainly far different than Germany’s.
Moreover, the French nuclear industry is an important part of the country’s prestige and its claim to still be a major industrial power. Not only does nuclear power allow France to export roughly 3 billion euros worth of electricity to its neighbors per year, it also allows French companies Areva and Alstom to export their nuclear expertise abroad. Following the Fukushima accident, French companies are the only companies, out of the major global nuclear reactor manufacturers, not to have experienced a major accident in their nuclear reactors (the United States, Japan and Russia/Soviet Union have all experienced serious nuclear accidents).
While we thus do not foresee the Fukushima accident changing France’s reliance on nuclear power, it should be noted that France has only built three nuclear reactors since Chernobyl (it has a total of 58), and only has one planned and one currently in construction. In other words, French nuclear reactor building suffered a setback due to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Furthermore, public opinion in France is split on the issue, according to the 2010 Eurobarometer results. There is strong commitment to maintaining the current level of dependence on nuclear power, but also a 37 percent approval of reducing the dependence. It is likely that public opinion will remain divided, therefore locking France into the status quo for the time being. While French President Nicolas Sarkozy is quite unpopular, there are no upcoming decisions on the nuclear question that would allow the issue to be used as a mobilizing factor against his tenure. By the time France’s 2012 presidential elections arrive, it is may be an ancillary issue.
Ultimately for France, there are no real energy alternatives. The North Sea natural gas sources are inadequate to power both the United Kingdom and France, and increasing its dependence on Russia and North Africa would erode the energy independence that has been a core French national interest since the oil shocks of 1973.
At the conclusion of the March 15 meeting of EU energy ministers, the decision was unanimously reached to subject the European Union’s nuclear reactors to earthquake stress tests to the magnitude of the earthquake that struck Japan. The tests would be intended to prove that Europe’s nuclear reactors are safe. Scenarios for the stress tests will also include heat waves, tsunamis, terrorism and possibly power cuts. Industry representatives backed the tests as well.
However, if the European Union is to learn something from its recently conducted bank stress tests, which ultimately did little to reassure investors of the soundness of Europe’s financial system, it is that it is difficult to convince a public already skeptical via stress tests. Opposition to nuclear energy has laid largely dormant in Europe for the past 10 years, allowing confidence of governments looking for energy independence and of industry looking for new markets to improve. Fukushima, however, has shifted the focus of Europe’s mostly already nuclear-skeptical public back to the industry. For some major countries — mainly Germany and Italy — this may may not bode well for the nascent nuclear revival.
*This report is reprinted with permission of STRATFOR. It may not be reprinted by any other party without express permission of STRATFOR.
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Fukushima Disaster Threatens To Snuff Nuclear Power Revival In Europe