Making nuclear safety a global public asset

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the question is not how to distance oneself from the nuclear sector but how to make it a safe industry, with joint safety standards, writes Claude Fischer, president of Confrontations Europe.

This commentary was sent to EURACTIV by Claude Fischer, president of think-tank Confrontations Europe.

"The impact of the Fukushima catastrophe will be considerable but I am not sure that it will put an end to nuclear energy, either in Japan or globally. Nor am I sure that such a situation would be desirable.

Remember Chernobyl! Although countries such as Italy or Austria decided to abandon nuclear energy, it spread throughout the rest of the world. Moreover, once nuclear power has been accepted, responsibility is a long-lasting duty! It takes one thousand years to end nuclear power, not a mere decade!

And although Ms. Merkel may go with the wind (a plan which has proved ineffective in electoral terms) and shut down nuclear energy production in Germany, she will certainly not be shutting down the nuclear sector as a whole and its duty to manage the safety of its plants and waste.

The question is not how to distance oneself from the nuclear sector but how to turn it into a safe industry, with joint safety standards and safety authorities that are truly independent.

In Europe, governments are trying to make concessions to reassure their populations! Yet it is much more urgent to standardise high-level safety requirements and make security (as we requested again in Budapest in 1 September) the fourth pillar of an EU energy policy. Safety issues have to become part and parcel of security of supply, climate problems and competitiveness!

The March summit meeting followed the Commission's proposal for European stress tests. National safety authorities have been making resistance tests for [a] long [time], and Wenra is working on the topic. Yet, now, we need to share common behaviour, with common criteria and common tests: here is a radical change of position.

After Chernobyl, only new members were required to comply with common standards, forcing them to close down power stations that did not meet the criteria. Meanwhile, existing members rejected the safety package tabled by Loyola de Palacio. A directive was not achieved until 2009 (and 2011 for the waste), and still without any common standards. Let us hope that the criteria and conditions of the tests allow progress to be made.

The 'battle' will be hard fought because on it depends the choice of the type of plant. Should we promote passive safety, encouraging the Westinghouse and Toshiba AP1000s, or favour the active redundancy of Areva's EPR? Should we demand confinement cells and close even more Russian-built power stations? Should we prepare for terrorism and plane crashes, as proposed by Commissioner Oettinger? Do we need a European nuclear safety authority? And what about solidarity if a crisis arises? European gas now has its Rapid Reaction Force; nuclear power does not!

Let's throw the European debate open to the public, and let's integrate it into the 2050 Commission road map. The Greens accuse the 'nuclear lobby' of hiding the truth but the 'wind and solar lobby' is also deceiving people by concealing the truth about prices. It is impossible to achieve 80% renewable energy without a drastic cut in consumption and a price per kWh that is constantly very high. The number of 'power poor' will explode! Defending a technology is praiseworthy but all the cards have to be placed on the table and the corresponding social decisions have to be made!

It is true that nuclear power will cost more, despite internalising the costs of greater safety, an extension of the lifespan of the power plants, their decommissioning and the management of waste. However, at equal levels of supply, it will be less expensive than wind or solar power, two sectors with zero fuel costs but capital productivity that will always remain low.

Doubts have begun to nibble away at countries such as Poland or Italy, which is delaying its popular debate on the revival of nuclear power. Europe will press the 'nuclear pause button' to leave itself time to reorganise, but it must avoid the nuclear hibernation of the 1990s, with its disorganisation and its loss of skills. This would undoubtedly cast even more doubt on the future of safety."

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