European Nuclear Industry Caught in Crossfire

European nuclear industry caught in crossfire

Europe’s nuclear revival could be running into headwind as politics, resurging nationalism and nature have sewed uncertainty over future security of investment.

First it was the Japan’s Fukujima earthquake and tidal wave that set off the worst nuclear accident since Ukraine’s Chernobyl, triggering a wave of backtracking and delays in European nuclear plans, starting with Germany, but also the U.K.

As largely expected, and mirroring the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, public uproar brought increased calls for more oversight, but not a complete break. A series of stress tests were announced, a move in fact welcome by the nuclear industry, even if it meant more investment, as long as these translated into more confidence in nuclear power.

Then a minor, but superficial earthquake last week in Spain, only 180 kilometers from one of the country’s biggest nuclear plants, once again brought calls for an immediate shutdown of reactors.

While there was no damage to the Cofrentes plant in Valencia -built to withstand far more powerful quakes than Spain historically gets- nuclear power is a passion driver for public opinion.

With municipal elections just weeks away, several small parties vote-mongered for decommissioning the 1000 MW installed capacity plant that got a 10-year permit extension just a day before Fukujima. It supplies a big part of the city’s and region’s electricity, making it indispensable, and authorities want to build a temporary nuclear waste storage site in the vicinity.

Cofrentes also happens to be lined up to be the first to undergo stress tests that the European Union plans to spearhead. These were designed precisely to overcome public backlash that followed Fukujima.

But the tests got caught up in embarrassing and unexpected power struggles pitting EU institutions against member states and growing assertiveness and nationalism from several big countries, including France, the UK and Germany.

The result is that the long awaited revival of Europe’s nuclear industry is now threatened by politics that have nothing to do with nuclear power.

“We’ve been supporting stress tests and we want an agreement at soon as possible because citizens need a strong signal to be reassured,” said Christian Taillebois, spokesman of Foratom, Europe’s nuclear industry umbrella group in an interview with ET. “If we have a lot of political fights over criteria it will give the wrong signal. We want it as soon as possible to rebuild confidence.”

Taillebois spoke after European nuclear watchdogs failed late last week to agree on the criteria for the stress tests. The impasse is not over safety, but sovereignty and national security. Austria, with strong support from Germany, wants stress tests to include man-made accidents, including terrorist attacks using airliners.

But France and the UK, which together have more than half of Europe’s 143 nuclear power reactors, balked. Not only are they unwilling to cede oversight of their nuclear power plants to European institutions, but they argue -correctly- that these are two separate issues.

Yes, nuclear power plants should be built to withstand major terrorist attacks, but national security is not a European affair. Appropriate protection is the responsibility of each government. On top of that, regulating security would likely make nuclear power unprofitable for corporations if on top of nuclear expertise they need failsafe mechanisms against falling planes.

Of course a lot of what is going on is pure politics. Non-nuclear states (and Germany), are using the sensitive issue for domestic political gain, in the same way Denmark wants to unilaterally close its borders in Europe to attract anti-immigrant voters. How can Germany oppose EU regulations over gas and grid infrastructure, and still expect its neighbors to accept antiterrorist regulations?

EU solidarity is being called into question, especially with the unusually strong language being spewed in normally boring EU press conferences. It also indirectly hurts security of supply of its EU partners, thus their own.

More importantly though, it sends tremors within Europe’s nuclear industry over risky investments planned as part of the revival.

The EU Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, is adding fire to the debate by strongly supporting the German position. “The public expects credible stress tests covering a wide range of risks and safety issues,” said Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

There is no disagreement on that. Every country can decide whether to include nuclear power in their mix in years to come. But to expect the type of regulation that Germany, Austria, and the EU Commission demand is impossible. It’s tantamount to the US agreeing to foreign oversight of its national security.

Taillebois, speaking for Foratom, is optimistic the issue will be resolved. “Maybe it’s too early to say whether nuclear revival will delay or not. We’ll wait for results of the so called stress tests,” he said. “There are a lot of emotions, different points of views regarding the criteria for stress tests, but long term what we can see is that the credentials remain unchanged.”

That’s not the point though. No one doubts that the cumbersome EU will manage to draft some water downed stress tests that satisfy all. EU officials will save face because they eventually always do. But ultimately oversight of nuclear power will remain a national issue.

In the meantime though, public opinion deserves to know its leaders agree on how to make sure they are safe from any man-made or natural Fukujima. That safety exists and will be improved, no doubt. But when politicians squabble over who should oversee that, it just makes everyone feel jittery.

© 2013 Energy Tribune

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