Privileges of the EU’s nuclear industries
The tragedy that's been unfolding in Japan reminds me that almost exactly four years ago a petition was handed in to the European Commission calling on the European Union to stop privileging nuclear power.
The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Community. You surely remember the general festivities? Or perhaps they didn't bother organising a party down your street.
As well as the "blessings" of the Treaty of Rome, the founding of what would eventually become the major weapon wielded by European corporate capital in its class war against working people involved a separate treaty to encourage the development of nuclear power. The European Atomic Energy Community, also known as Euratom, remains officially separate to the European Union, but it has precisely the same membership and is governed by the same institutions. Its purpose is to promote nuclear power through the creation of a common market for its distribution throughout the EU, as well as the sale of any surplus to non-members. One way it does this is by providing loans on favourable terms to finance nuclear projects.
The petition, which was signed by over 630,000 individual citizens of the 27 member states, as well as 780 organisations, demanded the abolition of Euratom and the rescinding of the treaty on which it is based. The aim would be to phase nuclear power out across Europe.
Currently, amongst EU member states, Britain, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden all make use of nuclear power to one degree or another.
Before the Japanese disaster, public opinion in the member states was divided, with the great majority expressing scepticism. It is clearly too early to say to what extent people will have turned against nuclear power, but it would be very surprising if the disaster's impact is not significant. In the last few years the relentless pro-nuclear propaganda campaign has paid dividends, as more and more people have been convinced that the technology represents the only serious alternative to fossil fuels in a warming world characterised by an ever-increasing demand for energy.
On the other side of the argument, the potential for calamities like that we are witnessing now on the other side of the world is one factor provoking opposition. The high cost of both building and eventually decommissioning nuclear power plants is another factor. Most important of all however is the nuclear waste problem. There is quite simply no safe way of disposing of the stuff.
No comprehensive survey of public opinion seems to have been conducted since 2006, when only one in five of a very large sample taken across the EU was in favour of nuclear power as a possible solution to Europe's energy problems. This was a lower proportion than those favouring coal or oil, and less than half as many as for natural gas oil. By far the most popular approach would be based on renewables, with 80 per cent expressing enthusiasm for solar energy.
In 19 of the 27 member states, including Britain, majority opinion was opposed to the nuclear option. Despite this, Britain is currently the only member state planning to increase its dependence on nuclear power. Belgium and German plan to phase it out. Sweden recently abandoned this policy, but it may now be expected once more to see its attractions. Italy, one of the few member states which is seriously threatened by earthquakes, was planning to reconsider its non-nuclear policy, but again this may now be quietly dropped. It is difficult to say what will happen in Poland or the Baltic states, which are committed to investing in new nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power is not only extremely dangerous, it is completely uneconomical. Given that we have been told for so long that the only way to conduct an efficient economy is for the state to do what it can to make life easy for the private sector and then keep out of its way, it is ironic that nuclear energy can only be viable if heavily subsidised. Privileging it in the face of huge public scepticism and considerable outright opposition has always been unjustified and undemocratic. To continue to do so under the present circumstances is only possible because the public is now effectively excluded from having any say in such decisions.
It must surely be quite clear to anyone who lacks a vested interest in the matter that the construction of new nuclear power plants must be immediately halted. Plans should be drawn up to ensure the phasing out of nuclear energy and to make up for the resulting shortfall in supply by investment in renewables and, importantly, in conservation measures. The Euratom treaty must be rescinded and a new agreement drawn up under which all European countries, whether inside the EU or not, commit themselves to turning their backs on the folly of nuclear power.
Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine
The photograph is by Mark Lawrence and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence