May 27, 2008

The Renaissance of A Nuclear Option?

By Petr Lang, PERG guest author and PSSI Program Coordinator

As the oil prices are skyrocketing and biofuels have recently lost much of their charm due to their partial impact on rising food prices, the majority of participants of the second European Nuclear Energy Forum, which took place on May 22-23 in Prague, might have been expected to wax lyrical about the bright future of their industry. However that was not the case. Not because they have lost their drive for increasing the proportion of the nuclear energy in the European energy mix, they are certain about that indeed.

As CEO of Areva Anne Lauvergeon put it, whatever you think, we are going to go nuclear. The reasons for such an assertive statement are well known: EU energy consumption is increasing and EU has obliged itself to a substantial reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the coming years. Add the feeling of insecurity surrounding the imports of natural gas from Russia and the nuclear renaissance will seem inevitable. These arguments were continuously repeated during the forum. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek added the novel argument to the toolbox of nuclear aficionados, when he cited Andrei Sakharov, who once wrote that the nuclear energy is the only chance for the West to stay free and secure. Should we stick to this assumption, the future of European security and freedom will look uncertain, because as Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg soberly mentioned, we will have to wait for the nuclear renaissance for some time to come. There are several factors delaying the return of the nuclear age.

First, EU has only recently started to overcome the nuclear hangover caused by the Chernobyl disaster. The presence of the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso at the European Nuclear Energy Forum was maybe the most important point of the whole session, although rather symbolic. The European Commission is at pains to stress that it is up to every member state to choose the structure of its energy mix, including nuclear energy, deliberately refusing to either bless the nuclear option or doom it for good. Mr Barroso called for a greater cooperation among EU institutions and member states with nuclear facilities (15 EU countries operate commercial nuclear power plants) to establish common framework for nuclear waste management, security standards etc. Compared to the flood of initiatives and subsidies fueling the recent biofuels bonanza in the EU, the nuclear industry might feel like the Cinderella. Even if the Commission decided to pledge its support for the nuclear option, it would take some time to get the business back to pre-Chernobyl levels.

Furthermore, the nuclear industry is experiencing the same problems as the oil business. The majority of skilled professionals is nearing the retirement age, and the universities cannot fill this gap immediately, although the situation is getting better according to Jean-Pierre Le Roux, Vice Chairman of French Atomic Energy. The time factor plays also crucial role because the nuclear power plants cannot be built as quickly as their gas or coal fueled alternatives. Should the new nuclear power plants get operational by 2020 and thus help the EU to fulfill its environmental plans, the construction would need to start soon.

The last and maybe the most important factor inhibiting the nuclear boom is uncertainty. The construction of the power plant is very expensive and the operator needs some safeguards that it will not be forced to close the shop because of the sudden change in political or popular mood. This weakness was exploited by the representative of Friends of Earth Patricia Lorenz who said that when so rationally oriented entities as investment banks have their doubts about the nuclear energy, why should this industry get support from the governments whose primary responsibility is the well-being of its citizens?

Needless to say, there were not so many antinuclear participants at the forum, but the environmentalist rhetoric was omnipresent as the fight against the global warming may be the decisive element triggering the nuclear renaissance in EU. In the appeal to the European Commission the participants recommend the Commission “to declare nuclear energy as a low carbon and emission free energy generation technology, with positive impact on environment and sustainable development.” Furthermore, “as an expression of responsibility of the EU in fighting climate change [the EC is recommended] to declare unambiguous support to nuclear energy as a way to fulfill EU targets in lowering emissions gases by 20% by 2020.” This wording points to win-win situation. If the nuclear option gets such an acknowledgment, the investors will be more willing to open their wallets and the EU will be able to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions much more easily.

The second European Nuclear Energy Forum was not designed as a discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear energy (the opponents were clearly outnumbered by the supporters) but as a rapprochement towards the European Commission and EU institutions in general. Given the fact that over the next twelve months EU will be presided by France and the Czech Republic, who generally support the nuclear renaissance, there is a chance that the Atomium in Brussels will shine brighter than ever.

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