Back from the Dead

Europe's scramble for nuclear energy is making for radioactive politics.

Miguel Villagran/Getty Images
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

At the dawn of the 21st century, nuclear power appeared to be drawing its last breath across much of Europe. Italy had shut down its last reactor in 1990. The Netherlands had closed one of its two reactors in 1997, and the other was set to cease operating in 2003. The Austrian parliament had voted in 1997 to keep the country nuclear-free; the Belgian government followed six years later with a move to rid itself of nuclear power by 2025. Sweden planned to complete its nuclear phaseout by 2010. And the center-left government in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, introduced the Nuclear Exit Law in 2000, which mandated the end of nuclear power in 20 years.

Each country, it seemed, was taking its turn driving the nail deeper into nuclear energy’s coffin. But the nail didn’t hold.

Ten years later, nuclear power is staging a comeback in Europe, capped by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement this month that her center-right administration was overturning the nuclear phaseout and permitting reactors to remain operational into the 2030s. Under the new policy, which resulted from lengthy negotiations with utility companies, nuclear plants will be allowed to remain in operation for an average of 12 years beyond their current shutdown dates — eight years for plants constructed before 1980 and up to 14 years for those built afterward. In exchange, the operators of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants will pay a combined 2.3 billion euros in annual fuel-rod taxes and contribute to a renewable-energy fund. Merkel and the plan’s supporters argue that the nuclear extension will allow the country to retain a clean and affordable energy supply until the renewable-energy industry is more fully developed.

Europe, of course, is not the only place where a nuclear expansion is taking place — China, India, and other Asian countries are rapidly expanding their nuclear capacities, and any major energy policy to emerge in the United States will almost certainly contain generous loan guarantees for nuclear construction. But in Europe — where Chernobyl still looms in the background, where green activism is at its strongest, and where nuclear power until recently seemed to be on its way out — the reversal is by far the sharpest. And there’s anger in the streets.

Germany’s green activists have charged that Merkel has simply sold out to the utilities, and tens of thousands of them took to the thoroughfares of Berlin on Saturday, Sept. 18, to protest her decision. The state governments in Germany have likewise threatened a constitutional challenge, asserting that their representatives in the upper house of parliament should have veto power. And the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, pledged to reverse Merkel’s reversal if his party is voted back into power in 2013 and has called for a constitutional amendment to allow for a referendum on the future of nuclear energy in Germany.

Yet Germany’s about-face, while perhaps the most dramatic, is hardly the only recent shift in favor of nuclear energy in Europe. After Silvio Berlusconi’s election as prime minister in 2008, Italy announced plans to build up to 10 new nuclear reactors, starting by 2013. Last October, Belgium — which gets more than half of its electricity from nuclear power — pushed back the start of its nuclear drawdown to 2025. And this June, Sweden — which in 1980 became the first country to pass a nuclear phaseout law — overturned its moratorium on new nuclear construction, allowing power companies to replace old reactors with new ones.

Likewise, Russia is constructing three new nuclear plants and has plans for 27 more; Belarus is building its first plant; Turkey is planning to construct its first three reactors; and Slovakia hopes to complete two new plants in 2012 and 2013. France, the only Western European state where nuclear energy has remained consistently popular, continues to draw more than three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power — the highest proportion in the world.

Europe turned increasingly to nuclear power in the 1970s as the oil crisis drove energy prices to record highs. But then sinking energy costs and two nuclear meltdowns — at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 — convinced many Europeans that a major investment in nuclear power wasn’t worth the costs, or the risks. Sweden imposed a moratorium on new reactors after Three Mile Island; other countries, like Germany and Italy, committed to phasing out nuclear power after Chernobyl.

"Chernobyl was the straw that broke the camel’s back," says Hans-Holger Rogner, section head of the Planning and Economic Studies Section at the International Atomic Energy Agency. Still, he argues, the shift away from nuclear energy was shortsighted — eventually, higher energy prices and the need for reliable domestic power sources would force a re-evaluation of nuclear power. That’s finally starting to occur.

"There’s recognition that the volatility of fossil [fuel] prices is probably going to stay," Rogner says. "We won’t be going down to $40 oil anymore." Although nuclear reactors are expensive to build, they are relatively cheap to operate, giving countries like Germany an incentive to keep existing plants online as long as possible.

Additionally, he said, after 24 years without a major nuclear accident, people’s safety concerns have been partially allayed. Budget shortfalls stemming from the economic crisis have also made nuclear deals like those struck in Germany and Belgium, which will send billions of euros from electric utilities to government coffers, particularly appealing. And with European countries looking to slash their carbon emissions over the coming decades, nuclear power might be a necessary form of clean energy until renewables like wind and solar are more fully developed.

Indeed, Merkel has painted the nuclear extension as a "bridge" to a renewable-energy future and has argued that the funding for renewables research and development that electric companies will provide as part of the compromise is critical to getting green energy projects off the ground. But representatives of the renewables industry disagree.

Ulf Gerder of the German Wind Energy Association says that Merkel’s new nuclear policy would "completely stop" the progress of renewable energy in Germany. "In 2020, [wind power] could provide a quarter of Germany’s energy needs," he argues, if the right policies are in place. "This policy won’t do it."

Germany, the world leader in wind energy production before it was recently passed by the United States and China, has created 320,000 renewable-energy jobs in the past 20 years, according to Gerder. But without "complete certainty" of government support for the industry, private investment in renewable energy will founder.

Opposition from the renewables industry is only one of a slew of obstacles to a true nuclear renaissance in Europe. Sixty-one percent of Germans oppose Merkel’s nuclear extension plan, according to a poll conducted last week by ZDF television. Likewise, a poll this year showed that only 20 percent of Italians support an expansion of nuclear power.

In Germany and Sweden, left-leaning opposition parties have vowed to overturn the recent pro-nuclear measures if they’re voted back into office. This political uncertainty could undermine the whole nuclear effort, says Rogner.

"As long as ther
e’s no firm government policy, there will be no private-sector investment in this technology," he explains. "If you have a situation in which every four years things may change, you will have no nuclear power, unless it’s funded entirely by the states."

There is also no coordinated European Union nuclear policy, leaving national politics to dictate the fortunes of nuclear energy on the continent. "By the [Lisbon] treaty [amending the EU constitutional structure], we cannot tell them, ‘Do this or do that,’" says Marlene Holzner, a spokeswoman for the European energy commissioner. "They are free to do it. The only exception is that they have binding targets for renewable energy, but other than that we cannot interfere."

Still, Rogner points out that even if certain countries revert once again to anti-nuclear policies, nuclear energy could continue to thrive simply by crossing borders. If Germany decides to shut down its reactors, for example, German utilities could build new plants in more nuclear-friendly countries like Poland or the Czech Republic — with new grids to ship electricity across borders.

For now, all indications are that nuclear power will live far beyond its previous expiration date in Germany and throughout much of Europe. This dawning reality has sparked protests by anti-nuclear activists across the continent. At Sept. 18’s rally in Berlin, massive crowds marched through the streets in and around the Regierungsviertel, or government quarter, chanting and blowing vuvuzelas in a show of support for renewable energy and opposition to nuclear power. Organizers of the demonstration claimed a turnout of 100,000; police estimated it at 40,000. In either case, it was the largest anti-nuclear demonstration in Germany since the aftermath of Chernobyl.

Claire Labigne and Uli Agurks, a middle-aged couple from the Odenwald, near Frankfurt, danced through the streets in anti-nuclear regalia. "Sun, wind, water, biomass — it’s all out there," said Labigne, a member of the Green Party. "It doesn’t cost anything, and it belongs to all of us. Why wouldn’t we use it?" She’s convinced Merkel’s plan won’t hold up. "There’s too much opposition," she said. "The Germans are ready to fight."

But Steffen, a man in his late 20s who declined to give his last name, wasn’t so optimistic. "Unfortunately, it’s not going to change at all," he said with a laugh, as he held a poster depicting Merkel next to Mr. Burns, the evil nuclear power plant owner from The Simpsons. "At least not under this administration."

Meanwhile, Merkel hails her administration’s renewed commitment to nuclear power as a "revolution" as Germany’s opposition leader mourns "a black day for German energy production." Call it what you will — it’s clear that nuclear power in Europe is back from the dead.

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