Professor Dr Rolf Wüestenhagen, Good Energies Professor for Management of Renewable Energies and a Director of the Institute for Economy and the Environment at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland)
24 Aug 2011
Auditorium 302, NTU@one-north campus, Executive Centre
European countries are currently debating their options because of a fall in public acceptance and confidence in nuclear technology and nuclear power and their risks following the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This event brought to the fore debates on how much Europe should depend on nuclear power to satiate its demand for energy, while attempting to move toward a low-carbon economy. Prof Wüestenhagen focused on the opportunities afforded by the Fukushima crisis to shift debates on energy dependency to one that is more sustainable and efficient.
Nuclear power provides about 30 per cent of the EU’s total energy consumption, ranging from 75% in France, the highest in the EU, to countries such as Austria, Cyprus, Malta, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg and Poland which are nuclear free, though some rely on imported nuclear power.
In a period of heavy investment in nuclear energy production, and amidst proposals for the increased generation of nuclear power in several EU member states, the disaster at Fukushima has urged everyone to take a step back and reassess their faith in nuclear energy. The Fukushima disaster led to calls for enhanced stress tests on nuclear reactors in the EU (there are currently 135) to determine their ability to withstand natural disasters and man-made accidents and contain radiation leaks, though this does not include threats to security, such as terrorism.
In Europe, the short-term consequences of the disaster have been quite significant, and the public confidence in nuclear authorities has suffered greatly. Prof Wüestenhagen cited the example of Italy, where in a recent referendum, 94% of the population rejected government proposals to build new reactors. To be clear, opinions toward nuclear energy are split between the member states of the EU, with the United Kingdom and France the most vocal supporters of nuclear power, with Austria the most vocal of anti-nuclear power states. Germany and Switzerland though, are “swing states”, and are beginning to phase out nuclear power as a result of the Fukushima disaster and mounting public pressure. Germany has already shut down 8 of its 17 reactors and plans to phase out nuclear power completely by 2022.
The disaster and reactions by the public also have longer-term consequences on energy supply in the EU, where a return to fossil fuels which is in limited supply, with its associated environmental risks will put even more pressure on meeting the Europe 2020 targets for reductions in CO2 emissions. Prof Wüestenhagen however, stressed that this is the chance to move toward renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power which has already seen significant growth and cost reduction since the 1990s. He also stressed the importance of moving toward more efficient consumption and distribution patterns by modernising energy delivery systems, known as ‘smart grids’ to better match base and peak energy loads. Moving toward alternative and renewable energy sources come with substantial costs, but Prof Wüestenhagen’s research indicated that in general, the public is willing to pay the extra costs for safety and a secure energy supply. He also cited the “paradigm shift toward an economy of renewable energy”, with the growing awareness across industry sectors and the public that greener solutions contributes to better financial performances.
Currently, there are no joint regulations on nuclear power in the EU. Standards, as well as adoption of nuclear technologies vary widely between member states, despite the fact that in the event of a disaster, there will be significant cross-border effects. The UK and France remain supporters of nuclear energy, while other member states have begun to reduce dependency on nuclear power. Many states have reacted far too quickly to calls to phase out nuclear power inside their borders, and in the short-term, it only means importing more nuclear power from abroad. A longer-term and comprehensive view should be taken, especially with regards to more concerted efforts toward renewable energy and energy efficiency.