Europe Shifting Gears after Fukushima

Photo credit: Marcel Mettelsiefen / 350.og

By Simona Štrimaitytė

Few weeks after Fukushima’s accident two Swiss nuclear lobbyists have been injured after a parcel bomb explosion – it’s hard times for nuclear attorneys. In the wake of the nuclear disaster in Japan the ongoing renaissance of nuclear energy in Europe has come to a grinding halt. Switzerland has joined German policy to exit from nuclear energy; plans for new nuclear plans are on hold throughout Europe.

And this is happening at a time when Russia’s export-rich nuclear power sector started taking baby steps towards Europe since Chernobyl. Is Russia losing its chance to gain more energy influence over Europe? Is Europe ready to become more energy self-sufficient, when renewable energy takes the spotlight?

Once again, nuclear power has shown its ugly side. The world has lost appeal in it and this has been proved during the latest round of United Nations climate negotiations, attended by 183 countries in Bonn, Germany.

“Presently, nuclear power is not accepted as climate friendly technology and its development is not supported. Some countries say they will use nuclear power on a national level, some even ask to include nuclear power into the list of technologies which can be supported as climate friendly in the framework of UN climate convention. But so far those efforts did not succeed because many countries oppose nuclear here”, summarizes one of the participants of the UN talks, Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the Moscow environmental organization Ecodefense.

Something similar happened 25 years ago in Europe. It got scared and became reluctant to use nuclear power after Chernobyl’s accident. But Russia didn’t abandon its industry and exported reactors to Iran, China and India. However, recently it has turned to the old continent to provide Europeans with nuclear reactors that should help fight global warming by keeping carbon emissions low.

The Russian state nuclear company Rosatom has already poured the first concrete for two reactors in the middle of Europe, Kaliningrad that belongs to Russia. Rosatom has begun the construction work in Turkey for at least two intended nuclear power plants that are located in a coastal and earthquake-prone area. Rosatom is also set to supply Belarus with a 2,400 MW power plant.

Russia’s intentions to develop nuclear energy in Europe are still possible, but getting complicated. The greatest ambition for Rosatom is to win the bid for two reactors in Temelin, Czech Republic, with the option for further three reactors against two major French and Japanese rivals. The bid is worth about 17 billion EUR and in case of success these would be the first Russian reactors built within the EU.

But the Czech case is exceptional in the EU context, because “the current right-wing government bears strong resentment against renewables and the public acceptance of nuclear in the Czech Republic is (with 49 percent “for”) third or fourth highest in the Europe,” comments Jan Rovensky, Greenpeace Climate and Energy campaigner in the Czech Republic.

Whereas in general, Fukushima’s effect will definitely overshadow Russia’s nuclear industry prospects in Europe. Vladimir Slivyak, the head of Russian environmental group Ecodefense, agrees: “I think Rosatom export plans will be very much affected by Fukushima. Even Rosatom said it is likely to happen. There is no way they can sell around 50 reactors to other countries in the next 10 years as they planned in the past. Right now, it is very hard to say how many they will sell actually, because it’s not clear yet what various developing countries will decide as a result of Fukushima. But what is more important, who will fund new reactors now. Money for nuclear renaissance is located in Western Europe, absolutely most of it. Even before 2011 it was hard to get private funds for new reactors. And after Fukushima, I guess it will be even harder. Because there will be very low financial support, new nuclear plants will not be many. But some will still appear”.

Not an alternative anymore?

On the other hand, in energy hungry Europe nuclear power is considered as an alternative to fossil energy, and as an alternative to lower its dependence on Russia that is the biggest oil, gas, uranium and coal provider to Europe.

So officially, nuclear power is still on the menu: “we have indications to assume that nuclear energy will be part of the overall European mix for the next years and decades”, says European Commission’s representative Nicole Bockstaller.

But current ongoing nuclear reassessment by European national governments might provide a different perspective. Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefense, doesn’t think that Europe considers nuclear as an alternative: “Otherwise various countries would have new reactors under active construction by now. Germany is phasing-out nuclear power; many other countries are cancelling plans for new reactors. Spain is softly getting out of nuclear. UK government does not support new nuclear reactors with money from the state budget, which therefore means no new reactors will be built there. It’s true that there are talks in some countries (especially new countries of the EU), but from talks to active construction there is a very long way, and most of the countries will not even start this construction. In fact, only France and Finland have reactors under active construction, one in each. This will not be enough even to replace existing reactors when it will be finally stopped. The amount of nuclear energy produced in Europe will go down quite soon. And after Fukushima, nuclear renaissance will not happen in the near future.”

A cloudy prospect for nuclear energy brings a promising future for renewables. “The EU tries to decrease its dependency on Russia and also in order to be able to meet the EU’s growing energy demand the EU of course also pushed for renewables (20% until 2020), integrate solar energy from North Africa (Sahara solar desert project), wind energy from the North Sea (wind parks) into the central European electricity grid”, says Nicole Bockstaller, spokesperson for Energy in European Commission.

When push comes to shove

But still renewable energy market has to be “pushed”. Europe has gotten into a lazy comfort zone due to nuclear energy that has helped to hold the balance between high dependence on oil and gas imports and expensive renewables.  But Germany took Fukushima’s accident as an incentive to leave this zone and find its own and quick way towards renewables.

Germany’s decision is radical, but it’s the country that could actually come up with such an idea for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s not that much nuclear dependent: according to the World Nuclear Association, France, Slovakia and Belgium are the biggest nuclear dependent nations; whereas Germany is not even on the top 10 list.

Secondly, Germany is not that import energy dependent, compared to other European countries. Its dependence rate on energy imports situates the country in the middle between less and more dependent EU countries, according to Eurostat, 2010. It’s clear that to fill the gap between nuclear and renewable energy Germany will have to increase natural gas imports from Russia, but it’s a decade that we are talking about.

Thirdly, Germany already uses a large mix of energy sources: gas and oil, nuclear and solid fuels, plus renewable energy. Energy mix is a key policy objective set by the European Commission to promote sustainable, competitive and secure energy, a similar policy that was set up in Denmark in 1973 after First Oil Crisis.

Fourthly, Germany is already known for having an “aggressive” renewable energy policy that is mainly based on feed-in tariffs that are set up to pay a premium for energy generation by, for example solar panels. The tariffs have been so successful that the federal government had to cut down on them, because they caused many more installations and became difficult to afford.

Finally, nuclear phase out was already discussed in Berlin in 2010, but at the end the nuclear lobby won and the permit to operate was given to all nuclear power plants in Germany. However, Mother Nature made a mess in Japan and now Germany is rethinking its priorities. And while 2010 saw the renewable energy industry in Germany complaining about losing out to nuclear power, today they are chosen as the only option.

Taking into the long-lasting successful German renewable energy policy and current growth of the renewables sector – the country was ready for a nuclear phase out.  Nuclear power could be replaced by renewable energy in Germany within 3 to 4 years, estimates Andreas R. Kreamer, Director of Ecologic Institute, Berlin, an international environmental think tank.

“The date can be brought forward if load-based tariffs would provide incentives for demand flexibility and feed-in from dispatchable renewable power generators and combined heat and power plants,” he says. “If, in addition, electric car batteries provide grid-connected power storage, again, the conversion can be accelerated”.

From political to economic

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, Germany’s feed-in tariff on clean energy subsidies were the most expensive costing taxpayers 6,7 billion EUR. A similar amount is spent on such tariffs however shared among European countries as whole. But big investments pay off by promising future perspective: according to a project financed by the German Federal Ministry of Research it is possible for Germany to achieve 100 percent of renewable power from domestic sources by 2050. Andreas R. Kreamer assesses that Germany could become totally renewable energy self-sufficient between 2030-2035 taking into consideration the demand-side measures and the large capacity of storage that is expected from electric vehicles.

The renewable energy industry is growing at a brisk pace in Germany; soon it could join Denmark, the only EU country that is energy self-efficient. But Nadine Lobnig, the manager of Statkraft, one of the biggest Europe’s renewable energy companies notes that renewable energy remains a highly political subject in Germany as well, because yet lots of investments are needed to build a stable net. The German Energy Agency forecasts that 12 GW more installed capacity have to be developed to have a stable net. Moreover, “as long as for example France is producing a lot with nukes there is the risk that Germany imports this cheaper power”. To conclude, it should not be a single country’s effort to bring renewable energy closer to crossover point in Europe – the point when the price of renewables becomes lower than, for example, building a new nuclear power plant.

But as renewables are not competitive yet in the energy market, in European as well, the goals of becoming more energy self-sufficient are harder to reach. “Germany is part of the internal market in electricity in the EU and the European Energy Community Treaty, and in consequence self-sufficiency is neither possible nor desirable. The overall objective should be for the EU and the member countries of the European Energy Community Treaty to phase out nuclear power”, suggests Andreas R. Kreamer, director of Ecologic Institute.

Recently Europe has expressed a common safety standard by agreeing in one voice to develop “stress tests” for nuclear power plants after the disaster in Japan. But yet Europe is lacking a common energy standard that could help it reach “clean” goals and gain more energy independence faster by developing its potential in the renewables market, whereas an absence of it slows the progress.

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