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Nuclear disconnect (Part 1)

A Mori IPSOS opinion poll just after Fukushima found that 67% of the French public opposed new nuclear projects, and the long-standing support for nuclear power in the French technocratic elite is showing signs of strain, following Germanys phase out plan. The share price of French reactor vendor Areva dropped by 25% in response to the German nuclear exit. It had already fallen 14% following the Japanese crisis. Then came the news of a new French government review of the future energy mix, which would look at all scenarios ‘with total objectivity, in full transparency’, including the complete phase out of nuclear by 2050 or even 2040. Reuters reported that an opinion poll in June found that showed three quarters of the French people interviewed wanted to withdraw from nuclear energy, against 22% who back the nuclear expansion programme.

The new critical view is developed in a book ‘The Truth about Nuclear’, by Corrine Lepage, who served as Minister for the Environment in the government of conservative President Jacques Chirac. It lists a litany of damning allegations about the French nuclear industry, such as the escallating cost of Areva’s Finnish reactors which will have to be borne by French taxpayers. She suggests that exiting nuclear power, rather than penalizing the economy, could in fact lead to reindustrialization. If France developed its large renewable resources to replace nuclear power, the country would create new industries and jobs like those seen in Germany. Meanwhile the French nuclear industry could turn its attention to the growing trend toward phasing out nuclear. She proposes that France could become a leader in decommissioning nuclear power plants worldwide.

She is currently serving as a member of the European Parliament and in that role she has questioned France’s nuclear choice, calling it a “strategic error” of historic proportions. The new leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, has also said that nuclear power is a “dangerous form of energy”.

Oddly, in the UK, the far-right has been very pro- nuclear, as witness the strong support recently given by the BNP leader Nick Griffin MEP at a Euro parliament session. But then so is the centre right and centre left!

That seems to be at odds with what’s happening elsewhere in the EU. It’s interesting that it’s been centre-right Germany and Italy who have ended up with solid anti-nuclear policies. Of course in both cases that has been due to massive grass roots opposition to government nuclear policies (and/or leaders) , forcing spectacular U turns. It could be the same in France- Sarcozy is very pro nuclear, and there is a presidential election next May. The center-right UMP party mostly supports the extension of nuclear, the opposition Socialist Party has called for a moratorium on new reactors and pledged a national debate on energy transition if elected in 2012.

In Germany, Merkels right wing government was trying to extend (or even abandon) the nuclear phase out programme inherited from the previous left of centre coalition. However, after Fukushima, massive 250,000 strong demonstrations and major reversal in the polls (support for nuclear, already very low, fell to 5%) , she has had to revert back to the existing ‘phase out by 2022’ plan. But she is now presenting this as a positive new pro-renewables policy.

Italy chose to phase out nuclear in a 1987 referendum just after Chernobyl, and has not operated a nuclear plant since 1990. But a change in government policy in 2008 led to plans for a programme of nuclear construction, with four large reactors proposed by Enel in cooperation with EDF. This was unpopular and a referendum was planned for June. Legislative referenda in Italy require a quorum of over 50% of all eligible voters to cast their vote in order to be valid. This is one of the highest quora in Europe, and no Italian referendum has been able to reach it in over a decade. So some saw it as having little hope of success.

However then came Fukushima. With opposition rising, the government initially imposed a one year delay on its nuclear programme, and then in effect froze it entirely, making the referendum irrelevant. But it went ahead and was the focus of massive grass roots agitation- as well no doubt of much anti government feeling. As a result, 57% of voters participated, an amazing 94% opposing new nuclear. The government has had to accept defeat and is now pushing ahead with renewables.

For the past 14 years, Italy, the world’s seventh largest economy, has done without nuclear, so it should not be hard to maintain this stance. It already gets 22.2% of its power from renewables (the UK is at 8%) and has become a leader in PV solar -Italy is currently the world’s second largest market for solar PV, following Germany. Other renewable are also moving ahead in Italy: wind energy currently provides nearly 5% of supply, with 5.8 GW installed by the beginning of last year – more than the UK.

Germany is of course in the front globally in most areas – with for example 27GW of wind capacity already in place . The German energy plan produced in 2010 called for renewables to supply 35% of electricity by 2020, upgrading the previous target of 30% renewable electricity by 2020. But in fact Germany’s official National Renewable Energy Action Plan produced for the EU, said it expects to actually generate 38% of its electricity from renewables by 2020.

All that was before Fukushima and the German government policy shift to return to a rapid nuclear phase out – by 2022. It’s been said that the aim now is to get to 35% from renewables by then, but clearly it could be more. Indeed an agency (UBA) within the German Ministry of the Environment, has produced a report saying that Germany can close all its reactors by 2017 and keep the lights on by faster development of its renewable sources of energy and the construction of 5,000 MW of new gas-fired generation.

The German UBA Environment Agency estimates that a rapid exit from nuclear will cost ratepayers only €0.006 to €0.008 per kilowatt-hour. This increase is, UBA says, less than the price swings of natural gas and coal during the past year. Interestingly, as energy analyst Paul Gipe has noted, the higher market price for electricity will reduce the cost of Germany’s renewable energy programme by decreasing the differential between the market price of electricity and the average cost of feed-in tariffs for renewable energy.

Similar shifts have happened elsewhere in Europe. The Swiss government had backed a nuclear expansion programme but after Fukushima 25,000 Swiss attended an anti-nuke demo, and in June the Cabinet decided against new build- in effect supporting a phase out programme as its old plants retire.

With Austria, Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Ireland and Greece all stead-fastly non-nuclear, and phase out programmes in Spain, and (at least until they get a government back in place) Belgium, that leaves the UK, France and Finland, along with Sweden and some ex Soviet EU countries, as the main EU countries in support. Problems have been mounting in Finland, with its EPR programme being 50% over budget and years behind schedule, and a new tax on nuclear being levied, and if the consensus in France is shifting, it could leave the UK isolated. No wonder then that the French and Germany nuclear companies are looking to the UK as a safe haven for new nuclear projects- with the Con Dem coalition offering enthusiastic support.

In my next Blog I will look at the situation outside the EU.

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