Europeans Debate Nuclear Power

Published February 1, 2003

The European Union’s July 2002 statement on Energy and Sustainable Development promised the EU would give technical assistance on safety to developing countries, such as China and India, that have nuclear power. The statement directly contradicts provisions of the EU’s Energy Initiative for assisting developing countries, which excludes nuclear.

In France, the June 2002 election saw a clear end to five years of Green Party influence on national nuclear energy policy. The Green Party won only three seats, while the center-right won more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. The former Environment Minister lost her seat; the new Minister made clear that nuclear energy “pollutes the least of electricity options.” There is optimism that a lead unit of the new, advanced European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) may be ordered before long. The first step, however, will be a national debate on energy and the role of nuclear power, culminating in a parliamentary decision on energy policy.

In Germany, the September 2002 elections narrowly returned the “red-green” coalition to power for four years. Their nuclear power phase-out policy is likely to continue, though any significant plant closures are many years away. The conservative parties hoping to form a new government are known to be strongly pro-nuclear on energy security grounds, though on the whole this did not feature in the campaign.

With half of Europe’s installed wind capacity (9000 MWe)–due to generous subsidies and tariff arrangements–Germany is already encountering major problems in utilizing the output in its grid system. Other generating capacity, including some base-load coal plants, must be shut down when the wind blows, but held on standby for when it ceases to blow. Peaking capacity can fill in some of the slack during calm periods, but the wind capacity is now reaching the level (about 8 percent of total) that base-load plant is affected and some is running at less than half its potential, which raises costs significantly. Consumers and taxpayers thus pay the inflated costs for highly subsidized wind generation as well as higher costs for traditional sources due to inefficiencies caused by intermittent wind availability. Base-load power sells for about EUR 2cents/kWh, while utilities are forced to buy all wind power produced for 8.6c/kWh whenever it happens to be available.

In the Netherlands, the three-party coalition has confirmed the country’s sole nuclear plant should remain operating for its full 40-year design life (to 2013), rather than close prematurely in 2004 as proposed by the previous government. One of the new coalition partners is canvassing the possibility of building a new reactor in Groningen. The new government is also considering allowing large-scale gas production from under a large nature reserve, the Wadden Sea, albeit with access from outside it. A significant proportion of the EU’s gas reserves are involved.

In Belgium, the government has an anti-nuclear policy and pending laws with phase-out due to begin in 2013. But there is considerable ambivalence due to the clear conflict with climate change goals, and in any case there is an escape clause regarding security of supply. No legislative action is expected until after the 2003 elections.

In Sweden, the September 2002 elections returned the existing coalition, so the government is likely to proceed with a nuclear phase-out modeled on Germany’s. Real action, however, will take place so far into the future that 10 of Sweden’s operating nuclear reactors will complete their economic lives. The eleventh, Barseback-2 , is still under threat of early closure if the government works out how to replace its output from non-carbon sources. Meanwhile, the main effect of closure of Barseback-1 at the end of 1999 is that an extra 4 million tons of CO2 is emitted annually from next-door Denmark. Very generous compensation paid to the plant’s owners ensures it will not reopen.

Finland is preparing to build its fifth nuclear reactor following a clear parliamentary decision favoring that move.

Nuclear energy continues to supply one-third of Europe’s electricity, and it remains the only way most countires can come near to meeting the CO2 reductions required by Kyoto, though increased wind generation helps. While France and Finland continue to support nuclear power, ambivalence or hostility in several other EU countries will have serious implications in the medium to long-term, though not immediately.

Sources: Foratom Bulletin, Nucleonics Week, ESAA Electricity Supply, New Scientist.

S. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, shares his thoughts on environment and climate news stories of the month. Singer’s The Week That Was columns can be found at