Tiptoeing away from nuclear power

Published on 18 March 2011 at 11:57

In Europe, nuclear power is like immigrants: everyone needs them, but nobody wants them in their back yard. And in both cases the consequences hang about for a long time. Precisely because immigration and nuclear energy are long-term phenomena, they should be tackled with a cool head cleared of emotion and a sense of timescales stretching out beyond a mere term in office and, dare we say it, even an election campaign.

Yet Europe's leaders seem unable to resist the temptation to exploit – if not actively encourage – the fears of their fellow citizens when they grapple with the subjects. Take nuclear power. Following the incident at the Fukushima plant in Japan, governments across Europe – with perhaps the notable exception of France – have talked of pauses for reflection, of moratoriums and referenda on nuclear power, all caught up in a rush to be the first and the boldest to denounce the great risks of atomic power and to call for it to be phased out. The prize for the moment goes to Angela Merkel.

What they are all neglecting to mention is that some of the electricity consumed in their own countries is imported, and that part of that comes from nuclear plants. Ten percent of the electricity consumed in Italy, for example, comes from French nuclear plants. The nuisances are in the neighbour’s back yard, and one can proudly proclaim that there is no need around here for reactors. In matters of energy, like in immigration and foreign policy, the member states go their own way, and long live national sovereignty.

The problem is that nuclear energy today represents nearly 30 percent of the electricity produced in the EU, and that if energy consumption forecasts do not change and if Europe wants to meet its CO2 emission reduction targets, there are not many alternatives to staying with nuclear. This is, perhaps, a temporary solution, and the right time to bring on more renewable energy (currently, such sources constitute only 7.8 percent of the EU’s energy consumption). In any event, unplugging nuclear power can be done only gradually. That calls for long-term vision and concerted action across the fences.

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