Fukushima, Europe’s nuclear test

Europeans could be enhancing international security standards for nuclear power rather than opting out.

Demonstrations were held worldwide to protest the use of nuclear energy after Fukushima [EPA]

Madrid, Spain – Seen from Europe, the irrationality of the political and media discourse over nuclear energy has, if anything, increased and intensified in the year since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Yet a dispassionate assessment of nuclear energy’s place in the world remains as necessary as it is challenging.

Europeans should not pontificate on nuclear energy policy as if our opinion mattered worldwide, but we do. On the other hand, Europe does have a qualified responsibility in the area of security, where we still can promote an international regulatory and institutional framework that would discipline states and bring about greater transparency where global risks such as nuclear power are concerned.

Europe is equally responsible for advancing research on more secure technologies, particularly a fourth generation of nuclear reactor technology. We Europeans cannot afford the luxury of dismantling a high-value-added industrial sector in which we still have a real comparative advantage.

In Europe, Fukushima prompted a media blitz of gloom and doom over nuclear energy. The German magazine Der Spiegel heralded the “9/11 of the nuclear industry” and “the end of the nuclear era”, while Spain’s leading newspaper El Pais preached that supporting “this energy [was] irrational”, and that “China has put a brake on its nuclear ambitions”. But reality has proven such assessments to be both biased and hopelessly wrong.

True, a few countries – Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, with Peru the only non-European country to join the trend – formally declared their intention to phase out or avoid nuclear energy. These decisions affect a total of 26 reactors, while 61 reactors are under construction around the world, with another 156 projected and 343 under official consideration. If these plans are realised, the number of functioning reactors, currently 437, will double.

But, more interestingly, the nuclear boom is not global: Brazil is at the forefront in Latin America, while the fastest development is occurring in Asia, mostly in China and India. If we compare this geographical distribution with a global snapshot of nuclear sites prior to the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in the United States in 1979, a striking correlation emerges between countries’ nuclear energy policy and their geopolitical standing and economic vigour.

Whereas the appetite for reactors in the 1970s reflected the international heft of the Soviet Union, and principally that of the geopolitical West – Japan, the US, and Europe – today the centre of gravity has shifted irrevocably to the East, where nuclear energy has become a “gateway to a prosperous future”, in the telling words of a November 2011 commentary in The Hindu. Indeed, US President Barack Obama, evidently agreeing with that view, has boldly bet that loan guarantees and research into creating small modular reactors will reconfirm the global position of the US at the forefront of civilian nuclear technology and its relevance in the new global order.

Energy is, of course, the bloodline of any society, reflected in the correlation between energy demand and income. In this respect, nuclear energy’s advantages, particularly its reliability and predictable costs, stand out. The International Energy Agency’s 2010 World Energy Outlook [PDF] foresees a rise in global energy demand of 40 per cent by 2030 – an unforgiving reality that is most tangibly felt in developing countries, particularly in Asia.

So expansion of nuclear energy is, and will continue to be, a fact. To act responsibly, Europeans should be working to enhance international security standards for nuclear power, not opting out of the game. The real lesson of Fukushima is that state controls are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure nuclear safety.

Unfortunately, a proposal last year at the International Atomic Energy Agency aimed at launching an effective international control system on safety and security of nuclear power worldwide blatantly failed with the acquiescence of the European Union. Worse still, with European backing, the IAEA’s budget, already a paltry €300m, has been cut by almost ten per cent.

 101 East – Fukushima Fallout

In this context, an initiative to mandate random IAEA inspections of ten per cent of the world’s operating reactors within three years was watered down, again with the EU’s active support, on the grounds that responsibility for security and inspections should rest primarily with member states. Only a slim provision that made joint inspections with the IAEA voluntary made it into the final agreement. As for the EU itself, the debate and final formulation of the March 2011 “voluntary” stress tests, accurately called “stormy” by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, revealed a bewildering array of deficiencies and weaknesses.

Perhaps the most striking contradiction in Europe’s nuclear discourse is the discrepancy between the seeming effort to boost economic growth and employment, and the flippancy of member states in abandoning the nuclear industry, which depends on the design, engineering, and command-and-control skills that underlie Europe’s comparative advantage in the industry.

One heartening exception is a recent agreement between the United Kingdom and France to forge a manufacturing alliance between Rolls Royce and Areva in nuclear technology. But they should not be alone. Is it reasonable that Europe’s countries give up a niche of prosperity on ideological grounds that are irrelevant from a global perspective?

The rise of nuclear power in Europe paralleled its post-war economic prowess. It coincided with the peak of the West’s belief in its soaring economic strength and perpetual global ascendancy. Today, with Europe increasingly seen as the sick man of the world’s economy, even the whole continent’s renunciation of nuclear energy would have little to no reverberation on the word stage. Dictating the direction of the policy discourse is no longer Europe’s role. Behaving responsibly is.

Ana Palacio is a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank.

A version of this article was first published by Project Syndicate.