In the aftermath of Fukushima, it’s clear the nation-states have not been having realistic conversations with their citizens about the risks of nuclear power. Many nations, such as Germany, are now moving away from nuclear power, but one European nation will not be making any changes soon, namely France. Instead, this country continues to place nuclear power at the center of its energy plan. Indeed, the country currently gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear, and has no plans to explore a different path. In this respect, it is almost unique in Europe, where most countries are rapidly investing in renewable energy with great success. Much poorer Portugal is about to get 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Other European countries have shown that it is possible to have a modern energy sector based primarily on renewable sources. Iceland obtains 100% of its energy from renewable sources, thanks to rich geothermal resources. Austria is over 70% renewable, while Norway has reached 97%, both helped by their hydro resources. Globally, a large number of countries (which range from New Zealand to Canada) get over 60% of their electricity from renewable sources. What this data shows is that the reliance on nuclear power is a choice, not a necessity.
But France’s energy system is distinct. Nuclear power in France is dominated not by the free market but by the state. Perhaps for this reason, France has sought to hide information about the possible costs of a nuclear accident from its citizens, as a post by Wolf Richter on the blog Oil Price, details:
“Catastrophic accidents, like Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima No. 1 in 2011 are very rare, we’re incessantly told, and their probability of occurring infinitesimal. But when they do occur, they get costly. So costly that the French government, when it came up with cost estimates, kept them secret. But now the report was linked to a French magazine, Le Journal de Dimanche. Turns out, the upper end of the cost spectrum of an accident at a single reactor at the plant chosen for the study, the plant at Dampierre in the Department of Loiret in north-central France, would amount to over three times the country’s GDP. France would cease to exist as we know it. Hence the need to keep it secret. The study was done in 2007 by the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), a government agency under joint authority of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Environment, Industry, Research Health.”
Such risks are so horrific that they cannot be born within a free market system. This is why nuclear energy can only flourish in a system in which state governments put the costs onto the government (and hence the citizens), while the benefits accrue to the power companies, which in some countries are owned by the state itself. Of course, in the case of a nuclear accident in France, people would be irradiated in other countries: “The region contaminated by cesium 137 would cover much of France and Switzerland, all of Belgium and the Netherlands, and a big part of Germany- an area with 90 million people.” If you are curious, you can check out the map (in French) here.
Of course, even if all nuclear power production was to cease tomorrow, we would still be living with the costs of nuclear power generation for untold generations to come. To understand how difficult these problems are to solve, one needs to look no further than the Hanford nuclear plant in Washington state, here in the United States. Even though the federal government spends two billion dollars a year, six tanks filled with radioactive material are leaking. There are also questions about the technology that the government is planning on using to treat the waste. We still don’t know if this plan will work. The U.S. spent $15 billion to assess Yucca mountain for waste, before that plan died. Currently, the country has no plan for the long term storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste. This situation is unacceptable, and an issue of generational justice. How can we as a society continue to generate waste that future generations will have to dispose of safely, when we don’t know if that will ever be possible? And why do the energy companies not have to bear the cost of disposing of this nuclear waste? Given that even that nearly bankrupt Portugal has been able to build an electrical system that is largely powered by renewable sources, while Germany has demonstrated what a wealthy nation can do on a grand scale, the time for excuses is past. Nations should abandon nuclear power.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University