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Opinion: What is the real cost of nuclear power for humans and the environment?
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Opinion: What is the real cost of nuclear power for humans and the environment?

DW's Jeannette Cwienk

I can still clearly recall that spring afternoon in late April 1986. I had been out playing in the woods and building a fort with some friends, when a rain shower forced us back home. It was a wonderful, carefree day.

We had no idea that just hours earlier, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl power plant near the Ukrainian city of Pripyat had exploded.

DW's Jeannette Cwienk

DW’s Jeannette Cwienk

I was only days old when the news of the Chernobyl accident and the fears of a radiation laden future became my life.

Such memories, however, are not the only reason for my concern about the European Commission’s proposal to include nuclear energy and natural gas as environmentally-friendly technology in the EU taxonomy.

Doing so would see nuclear energy classified as sustainable, and recommend it as an option for investors making a mockery of environmental efforts.

Who will pay for nuclear accidents

The EU Commission completely ignores nuclear energy’s costs. Quite apart from the funds required to build new nuclear power plants, even smaller ones, there is the far more important and apparently overlooked question of who would foot the bill in the event of an accident.

In Germany alone, the federal costs attached to the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe have been estimated at around 1 billion ($1.1 billion). Worldwide, the immediate economic ramifications of Chernobyl are estimated to have been more than 200 billion and that doesn’t include the cost of widespread related illness. 

Health costs were also not included in the 177-billion bill linked to the consequences of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, as estimated by the Japanese government in 2017.

Most of these costs have since been covered by Japanese taxpayers, because the operating company, TEPCO, was de facto nationalized after the disaster to avoid insolvency.

Officials at Fukushima measuring radiation

Even years after the explosion radiation levels are still high near Fukushima power station

The bill will be borne by the taxpayers

And this brings us to the heart of the problem: in Europe, the amounts that nuclear operators are required to set aside in case they’re found liable for a nuclear accident are laughably small. In the Czech Republic nuclear power plant operators must have 74 millions on hand in the event of an accident. In Hungary, it is 127million.

Even in France, the driving force for the planned “greening” of European nuclear energy and the largest consumer of nuclear energy worldwide it makes up around 70% of its energy supply operators are only required to set aside 700 million in case of an accident. A large-scale nuclear accident in Europe could easily run to between 100 billion and 430 billion. The taxpayers of the affected countries will also be responsible if a nuclear accident occurs.

This situation has been met with criticism by Germany’s new finance minister and the leader of the neoliberal Free Democrat Party, Christian Lindner, who recently expressed skepticism about the place of nuclear energy in the new EU taxonomy.

“An energy source that can only be mainstream if the state is prepared to accept liability  that’s a sign from the market that it can’t be a sustainable energy source,” he said.

On Friday, the German government is likely to vote against the EU Commission’s plans  and rightly so. Austria and Luxembourg, on the other hand, have gone a courageous step further and have announced plans to take Brussels to court if the disputed sustainability plans go ahead.

Risks associated with small modular reactors are also present

France’s President Emmanuel Macron enjoys calling nuclear power a “stroke luck” for climate protection. The fact that 10 of the country’s reactors are currently offline three from the latest generation due to safety concerns are apparently not an issue for the French government, which has been trying to allay the fears of a nuclear accident with new small modular reactors (SMR). These smaller power stations are only around one 10th of the size of a conventional nuclear site  and therefore are considered less dangerous, in the event of an accident.

But this plan has a whole range of shortcomings, not least because reaching the same capacity as a single large nuclear reactor requires a great deal of these small reactors.

“This high number will increase the risk of a nuclear accident many time over,” the German Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE) recently warned.

Is it really about climate change?

BASE has also been critical of a report by the EU’s Joint Research Center, which the EU Commission has used to make its assessment about the environmental friendliness of civil nuclear power.

The EU report does not consider the risks of nuclear energy for the environment and humans, and it does not properly account for some principles of scientific research. According to BASE, the report cannot be relied on to comprehensively assess the sustainability of nuclear energy use.

This has raised doubts over the claim that Brussels wants to include nuclear power in the new EU taxonomy primarily for climate protection reasons. The decision seems to have been made by Paris, and not Brussels.

As a global nuclear power, France wants to hold on to its nuclear plants at all costs, as Macron clearly stated in December.

He stated, “Without civilian nukes, there’s no military nuclear power and without military nukes, there’s no civilian nuclear energy.”

This commentary was translated from German

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