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Momentum is building for a new, common approach to energy within the European Union (EU) that balances the need for competitive pricing against security of supply and the need to reduce carbon emissions. However, the wide spectrum of views among member states, in civil society and within expert communities about the proper role of nuclear power within the overall EU energy approach means that it remains a contested public policy issue. The European Energy Security Strategy recently described by the European Commission was a timely reminder that states will not be able to address their future energy needs effectively through national policies and programmes.
The serious nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 and the difficulties in financing the high cost of building power plants appeared to have dampened the prospects for nuclear power to play a significant role in a more integrated approach to energy. However, following the events in Ukraine in early 2014—which raised the possibility of disruptions to gas supplies, as occurred in 2006 and 2009—policy proposals have focused on improving the security of energy supply, emphasizing the need to develop energy resources within the EU in a sustainable way. Such an approach would seem to enhance the prospects for nuclear power as part of an energy mix—since electricity from nuclear power plants constitutes a reliable, emission-free base-load electricity supply.
A number of EU member states now seem to be advancing plans to keep nuclear power in their energy mix. British plans to develop nuclear power are probably the most ambitious in Europe, with proposals for up to 11 new reactors by the mid-2020s. Other member states—including Bulgaria, Finland, France, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia—are either reviving projects that were put on ice, building nuclear reactors or moving forward with plans to do so.
The European Commission has spent more than a decade developing a policy framework for climate and energy, as well as the ‘Energy Roadmap 2050’. However, its recent Communication laying out the European Energy Security Strategy is explicitly linked to the consequences of the recent political crisis in Ukraine and preventing coercion by threats of denial of access to resources. In the nuclear context, this approach to security—encompassing security of supply—contrasts sharply with the focus of the three Nuclear Security Summits, held in Washington, Seoul and most recently in The Hague. These summits have progressively narrowed the scope of nuclear security to reducing the risk of mass impact terrorism, largely through technical measures to protect sensitive nuclear materials and radioactive sources.
While the need to ensure that nuclear material does not fall into the wrong hands is uncontested, the role of nuclear power in an EU energy mix is more controversial. Furthermore, while a broader and more inclusive debate is certainly desirable, a number of obstacles to such a debate have also become apparent. First, the level of technical knowledge considered necessary to participate in nuclear security discussions deters engagement, and linking the discussion to counterterrorism has tended to reduce information flows. The narrow framing of nuclear security issues around measures to reduce the risk of mass-impact terrorism has excluded large parts of the interested public—including proponents and opponents of nuclear energy—and abandoned the public policy sphere to special interests.
Second, there are some specific problems in promoting dialogue on nuclear science as an aspect of public policy. The reaction to the accident in Fukushima underlined the powerful psychological impact of a nuclear safety failure. The deaths, physical damage and economic impact caused by the earthquake and tsunami were far greater than those caused by the resulting nuclear safety failure at Fukushima. However, the impact on the public discourse of the nuclear event was greater—not only in Japan but around the world. When discussing nuclear science, the expert community is unwilling to state that risks can be eliminated, while political decision makers are reluctant to admit publicly that some degree of risk is unavoidable. Methodologies and processes for risk assessment cannot repair this disconnect between science and public policy in the nuclear field.
Third, there is no agreement on the scope of nuclear security beyond physical protection of nuclear material. In general, industry has worked to differentiate between civilian and military nuclear domains, as demonstrated by the Nuclear Security Summits, where discussion has been confined to the civilian nuclear-fuel cycle. However, there are significant countries where the civilian and military fuel cycles remain intertwined. For many interested constituencies in Europe, it is neither possible nor desirable to treat these issues entirely separately, and bridging that gap in understanding may also be necessary to find a common European approach to the proper role of nuclear in any future energy mix.
Some specific questions related to the external dimensions of an energy security strategy will also need to be thought through carefully. EU member states that build new nuclear power stations will have to be certain that they can buy the natural uranium that is the raw material for nuclear fuel. As noted in a 2013 SIPRI Policy Paper, African countries already account for a significant share of world natural uranium output, and many are prospecting to identify new uranium reserves. Given the emphasis in EU documents on diversifying external supplies and speaking with one voice in external energy policy, future EU uranium-extraction projects could be the basis for a more fair, transparent and commercially viable approach to Africa than was displayed in past national programmes.
Increasing security of supply through energy production inside the EU would probably involve the construction of nuclear reactors of non-European origin. EU documents emphasize the development of energy technologies, and EU industry already has advanced capabilities throughout the whole nuclear fuel cycle. Although purchasing nuclear fuel for long-term operation (or even the whole lifetime of the nuclear reactor) and storing it on-site is feasible, member states might want to avoid any risk of disruption by further developing the capability to manufacture fuel for reactors of non-EU origin.
The energy security strategy calls for making the possibility of fuel supply diversification a condition for any new investment in nuclear power. However, in the case of Russian-supplied reactors, the certification of non-Russian fuel for their operation would need to be prepared for in advance—something that would require close consultation with Russian partners.
The European Energy Security Strategy calls for improving the coordination of national energy policies among the EU members and welcomes the Energy Union (a single European body that would buy gas for the whole EU, proposed by the Polish Prime Minister) as a mechanism through which member states strengthen their dialogue on future changes in the national energy mix. Energy supply choices will be made at a national level, and will therefore have to take account of the local context—meaning that the public will need to be informed and involved into the decision-making process.
The need for constructive and informed public discussion of the place of nuclear energy in the overall approach will increase. The public, industry, political elites, expert community and other stakeholders all have varying degree of interest in safety, security, sustainability and the cost of the energy resources they use. However, past experience demonstrates that such discussion either excludes some stakeholders or is polarized to the point where it stops being useful.
The best safeguard for EU member states is a collective approach, including a functioning internal market, energy conservation, coordinated and interconnected distribution networks, and a more coherent external approach to energy providers in Africa, the transatlantic community, the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere.