Nuclear Energy Policy in the European Union: Meltdown or False Alarm?

By Johnson, Debra | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Energy Policy in the European Union: Meltdown or False Alarm?


Johnson, Debra, Journal of International Affairs


[A]part from the Green movement, there is little evidence of widespread public opposition to the continued operation of existing nuclear plants in Western and Northern Europe

Recent elections in Sweden, Germany and France have helped shift the political balance in Europe from the center-right to the center-left, with the result that in one-third of European Union (E.U.) member states, green parties either support or are represented in the ruling government. With the environmental ministers of Finland, France, Germany and Italy representing their respective green parties, environmental issues--especially the future of nuclear power--have moved up on the European political agenda. In Germany following the 1998 election, the so-called Red-Green coalition, comprising the Social Democratic Party and the Alliance 90/The Greens (the Green Party), made a commitment to phase out nuclear power entirely.

Despite these political developments, European public opinion towards nuclear power has been less hostile than the ascendancy of the environmentalists would suggest. Lately, the balance in the debate about energy and the environment has in fact shifted more in favor of nuclear power, given its potential as an alternative to fossil fuel combustion in an era when greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. In short, public opinion about nuclear power and nuclear policy itself are functions of wide-ranging economic, political and market considerations--not solely shifts in the political winds. Many Europeans are quite aware that the feasibility of plans for early nuclear phase-out is dubious for cost and market-based reasons.

At times of concern about energy security, public opinion about nuclear power tends to become more positive, whereas public support for nuclear power declines following accidents like that at Chernobyl in 1986. Using Sweden and Germany as examples, this article examines the future of nuclear power in Europe in light of recent political realignments and fluctuations in public opinion. It concludes that the political shift to the center-left and the increasing concern with nuclear energy is more a reflection of the arithmetic of coalition politics in Europe--and as such is not likely to be sustained--than of a major shift in public opinion. European public opinion, in fact, though less enthusiastic than it was in the period immediately following the 1973 oil crisis, continues to favor nuclear power. In support of my conclusions, I examine the Swedish government's continuing, and so far unsuccessful, attempts to pioneer anti-nuclear policy; the German coalition's early signs of strain about the pace of phase-out; and related market and environmental pressures.

NUCLEAR ENERGY POLICY IN THE EUROPEAN UNION

The potential for nuclear power to play a major role in European energy supplies was acknowledged in the 1950s by the treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom Treaty), which along with the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Rome comprised the founding treaties of the European Union. Euratom outlined a vision of nuclear power as a clean, safe fuel. Its signatories "resolved to create the conditions necessary for the development of a powerful nuclear industry which will provide extensive energy resources, lead to the modernization of technical processes and contribute, through its many other applications, to the prosperity of their peoples."(1)

Although E.U. regulations and directives relating to energy and the environment are binding on member states, the choice of power and energy supplies remains firmly within the sphere of member-state sovereignty. In practice, therefore, the future of nuclear power within Europe lies not in the hands of E.U. institutions but in those of individual member states. The Periodic Illustrative Nuclear Programmes for the Community (PINC)(2) are the nearest the European Union comes to a nuclear policy. The PINCs review the role of nuclear energy within the framework of E. …

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