Post-Fukushima Europe: the end of the nuclear renaissance

The nuclear renaissance in Europe ended as soon as it started, completely buried by the disaster at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant in Japan which was caused by a powerful earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. Without nuclear power to meet Europe’s energy needs one of the few alternatives left is natural gas.

The nuclear renaissance in Europe ended as soon as it started, completely buried by the disaster at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant in Japan which was caused by a powerful earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.

Without nuclear power to meet Europe’s energy needs one of the few alternatives left is natural gas. The most obvious and practical supplier of gas for Europe is Russia. However the question remains as to whether European politicians will be able to cope with their unrealistic fears of energy dependence on Russia.

Many times in the past the world has tried to move away from nuclear power. After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster it seemed that peaceful nuclear power would disappear forever. Despite the disaster, soon after, the so-called nuclear renaissance saw its dawn with one country after another returning to the use of nuclear power. Europe led the campaign, though it was skeptical about nuclear power in the early 1990s.

In 1990, Italy shut down all of its nuclear power plants and Germany adopted a shutdown program which was to be carried out by 2009. Sweden was also considering the issue and Lithuania had to close the Ignalina plant to join the European Union.

For some reason suddenly everything changed and countries began to change their rhetoric regarding the peaceful atom, many saying that nuclear-phobia was a thing of the past since progress has made nuclear power safe. Many countries then drew up plans for new nuclear power plants, even Germany, where Angela Merkel’s government cancelled the nuclear power plant shutdown program adopted by her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder.

The explanation for the turn of events is simple, Europe was afraid of growing gas and oil imports from countries, such as Russia, whom they regarded as politically dangerous. However, nuclear energy would not free the European Union from being dependent on foreign powers for resources needed for its own energy production, such as the need for uranium, which Europe also lacks.

Top uranium-producers, Canada or Australia, were considered safer than Russia. However this strategy was doomed to failure as well, as uranium reserves would be depleted faster than oil reserves, and the fact that uranium also needs to be enriched to make it usable as fuel, which is something also done by Russia.

On March 11, 2011 the disastrous events began to unfold at the Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant in Japan as the plant’s cooling system failed after the quake and tsunami.  The world was in shock as even Japan, which many view as being a country with super hi-technology, could not prevent the unfolding tragedy.

Nuclear power was on its way to replacing hydrocarbon based energy sources but now many countries have abandoned this path. Switzerland is ready to close its nuclear power plants and Germany has already shut down 7 of its nuclear facilities and plans to shut down those that remain by 2022, due to the disaster.

There exist three possible substitutes for nuclear power; first ecologically unfriendly coal, then renewable sources, mainly the Sun and wind, but they cost a lot according to the head of the Fund for Energy Development Sergei Pikin, he spoke to the Voice of Russia on the issue, and thirdly gas which is more preferable from an environmental point of view. Mr. Pikin said that without gas these sources may only be able to satisfy 15% of European energy needs and they can not provide a constant supply required by industrial consumers.

If Germany decides to fully switch to gas it will require an additional 35 billion cubic meters of gas for its own consumption, as well as 6 billion for Switzerland and 15 billion for Sweden to make up for lost supplies to these countries.

Eastern Europe (Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic) are also likely to shut down their facilities as well. If so 16 billion cubic meters a year will be required to compensate for the loss, and this is not all Italy and France have also decided to part ways with nuclear power. This past April Strasbourg authorities voted for shutting down a nuclear power plant 80 km from the city.

Thus, the nuclear renaissance seems to over but Europe has nothing to fear. It will not end up without energy sources.  When one bears in mind the Nord and South Stream projects it is clear that Russia will easily be able provide for the energy needs of Europe.