Will Japan’s Nuclear Emergency Really Sour Europe To the Energy Source?

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Given the enormity of human suffering and risk of an atomic catastrophe in Japan, it seems almost indecent to be offering up commentary out of safe, comfy Europe. But despite the understandably shocked and fearful reaction to a possible reactor melt down at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station, it’s probably worth questioning even this early on whether this drama will actually carry the quasi-fatal consequences for nuclear energy in Europe—and much of the world—that some observers now suggest. As nightmarish as the situation in Japan is—and without for a moment discounting the calamity that a worst-case scenario in Fukushima Daiichi would represent—it’s a pretty fair bet that as time goes on, nuclear-reliant European societies will settle back into their previously pragmatic relationships with atomic energy, and hang right on to it.

On Monday, Time’s Eben Harrell presented a very complete and persuasive case on how current reaction to Fukushima Daiichi could signal the end of nuclear power’s flourishing renaissance. As part of that, Eben noted initial reaction by several European countries to put pending nuclear plans on hold, or shut down older installations immediately for inspection. Far from taking issue with Eben’s examination of the current situation, this post proposes walking the issue a bit farther down the road and looking at how habit and routine in Europe may well prevail over alarm and suspicion surging now. Despite some of the rather dramatic calls across Europe to scrap older facilities—or demands to end nuclear energy production entirely—there are signs already that initial European response thus far is actually aiming to safeguard nuclear technology for the future, rather than preparing to moth ball it.Not surprisingly, the most emphatic reminders that nuclear power is a reality that’s here to stay come from France, which generates over 75% of its electricity from its 58 nuclear reactors (over a third of the total 143 across the European Union). On Tuesday, French Premier François Fillon joined the extremely rare demonstration of unity across party lines by echoing calls to proceed with a full audit of French nuclear installations, and to make improvements to any with potential safety flaws. But in offering to prepare a complete and transparent picture of France’s nuclear plants for the public, Fillon made it clear his intent is to restore the previously strong confidence of French citizens in nuclear technology central to the nation’s long-term plans.

“It’s as absurd to claim that nuclear (power) is condemned by this accident as it is to claim we’re not affected by it,” Fillon told applauding legislators in explaining his inspection plans with post-Fukushima lessons in mind. A few hours earlier, French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppé was even more pointed in speaking of the future of nuclear power in France. “We won’t be abandoning nuclear (energy) in the coming decades,” Juppé told Europe 1 radio. “Telling the French people we’re going to drop nuclear (technology) is lying to them.”

Some might correctly reply that nuclear-loving France has always been exceptional in its advocacy of nuclear power. It also has a huge ulterior motive in sticking with it, given the leading role of French companies like Areva and EDF in the global nuclear industry. But France is far from the only European nation that has made nuclear a major element of its energy production mix–and virtually no countries that do rely on an atomic component could quickly, easily, or cheaply factor it out. Even Germany, in announcing it has temporarily closed seven older nuclear installations, didn’t suggest it could feasibly shutter its other 10 atomic plants without penalizing consumers and businesses in an unacceptable manner—the generally hostile attitude of the German public to nuclear notwithstanding.

Indeed, it was because countries like Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and others responded so quickly to Fukushima Daiichi by suspending nuclear plant operations or plans to construct new reactors that the EU’s energy commissioner—German Günther Oettinger—held his emergency meeting of ministers and nuclear experts in Brussels Monday. In addition to addressing fears, the meeting was also design to keep rapid response from over-taking reason. Yes, concern aired at that summit led member nations to agree to adopt harmonized norms to unify the current patchwork of national standards on nuclear power. And, indeed, participants also accepted creating a standardized stress test to measure the safety of all 148 EU reactors operating in 13 member states. But the point of that is quite clearly to repair any weaknesses, try to foresee unexpected threats, and restore full public confidence in nuclear safety to continue using the technology—not as preparation to bury the purportedly dicey technology.

Looming elections in Germany partially explain why politicians there have been so high profile in reacting to the Fukushima Daiichi threat. But pragmatism—rather than politics—will probably lead European governments and public opinion already hosting reactors to keep doing so as time goes by. It’s worth pointing out that the last EU-generated stress tests created were for indebted euro zone banks and economies that—at the time—were under attack by markets, and considered calamities waiting to happen in their own right. Public attention—and the media gaze—has moved on since then, and new fears have simply replaced (rather than resolved) the old ones. The emergency at Fukushima Daiichi is real and deadly serious—but unless it has direct consequences in Europe, it will eventually be viewed here as largely a Japanese tragedy.

Meanwhile, the modern human mind tends to rationalize rapidly. Genuine sorrow, pity, concern, and fear that Europeans are feeling in the immediate wake of the horrifying events in Japan will flatten out and fade with time. Eventually, concerns closer to home will again push to the fore, and before long, European headlines will return to topics of sky-high gas prices and new evidence of the threats posed by global warming. And it may well be that if the worst can yet be avoided in Fukushima Daiichi, the current doubt in Europe about its own nuclear reactors may rapidly give way to the returned view of that energy source as a relatively cheap and clean option that has experienced “only” three major accidents in the last 32 years.

Energy strategy and construction  is an area with enormous lead-time. No matter how quickly concerns over the safety of nuclear technology have risen, it will take a very long period of worry and opposition for it to be pulled from Europe’s energy equation. And it’s doubtful the European public will fret over the issue long enough for that to occur.