Science & the Environment Energy

Nuclear energy: Let’s shut the power stations down

5 October 2012
Frankfurter Rundschau Frankfurt

The stress tests carried out by the EU provide more than enough reasons to shut down the old reactors. The European Commission, though, lacks the courage to follow the German example and prefers instead to rely on costly upgrades, laments an environmentalist writer.

What it’s missing: airbags, ESP, the catalytic converter, the halogen high-beams, the parking assistance, the power windows. Nobody would dream of refitting a 40-year-old VW Beetle to make it roadworthy in modern traffic, which is twice as heavy and far faster than it was the day the first Beetle hit the street. Very few drivers of our time would like to sit in the old crate to head off to work every day. And even for Sunday drives the Beetle of the early 1970s can hardly be regarded as a vintage car, as it’s not old or special enough.

Of course, a nuclear power plant is no car. It is far more complex, designed to work for 40 years, and, where possible and at plants run by operators with a high awareness of safety, it is continuously upgraded. Nevertheless, a nuclear power plant, such as the plants of the first generation of reactors developed in the EU in the 60s and hooked up to the grid in the 70s, does have something in common with a VW Beetle: the cost of modernising one to meet modern standards and be eligible for approval today is nowhere near reasonable. Like the Beetle, the old reactors deserve to end up on the scrapheap.

Retro-fitting, and not a gradual shut-down, however, is apparently the strategy the European Commission is pursuing to preserve the big nuclear power plants in the Union. The astonishing conclusion that Commissioner Guenther Oettinger draws from the nuclear power plant stress tests carried out in the wake of Fukushima is that the safety of the plants was "generally high", and could be brought up to current standards at a cost of 30 to 200 million euros per reactor.

Many power companies are putting off upgrades

This is in tune with the tired old song of the EU, which ever since its inception has seen itself as a vehement proponent of nuclear power, unswerving in its faith even after (near-) disasters such as Harrisburg, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Oettinger's interpretation of the stress tests for the 134 reactors that the Commission’s experts examined is thus explainable, but not understandable. At practically every plant they uncovered security flaws – and this without trying to assess them for new threats such as terrorist attacks or cyber attacks – and some EU Member States dragged their feet before allowing the nuclear experts sent by Brussels access to the reactors and the data. The stress test was only a “stress-test-lite". Even so, plenty of shortcomings were exposed.

Even the current stress test shows that the much-vaunted safety culture of nuclear power plant operators is still far being from the reality. With unusual outspokenness, the experts condemn the failure of some countries fully to implement the guidelines laid down following Harrisburg in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, and this holds true for Germany as well.

What’s more, it’s obvious that many power companies are putting off upgrades, which cost money, for as long as possible. Those costs, according to the estimates by the EU experts, will be up to 25 billion euros. And not without good reason, the stress test report refers to the reality that 111 of the 132 reactors are sited in metropolitan areas where more than 100,000 people live within a 30-kilometre radius.

Brussels lacks the authority to impose an phase-out

Germany has drawn the right conclusions from Fukushima – that old nuclear plants cannot be retro-fitted. And so they were shut down, and they have stayed shut down. For the newer plants, a phase-out schedule has been planned. This has nothing to do with "German Angst”. It is simply looking ahead. And in Europe it’s no maverick path that Germany is setting out on.

Belgium and Switzerland want to move away from nuclear power by 2025, the Italians have cancelled plans to revive nuclear power (absent from the country since 1990), the plans of the Polish government to have more nuclear power in their energy mix are running into great resistance, and yes, even in France nuclear scepticism is widespread. The touted ‘nuclear renaissance’ has been slow to emerge. The two new reactors currently being built in Finland and France have suffered a series of costly delays and will be twice as expensive as planned.

Brussels lacks the authority to impose an phase-out blueprint for the Union; nuclear policy is still a national prerogative. The courage to think ahead in this direction, though, is just what should be shown by a German EU Commissioner. To finally prescribe an appropriate liability to the energy companies for nuclear accidents is a good step. To reduce the risk of accidents as fast as possible is even better.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer