Political Impact in Europe from Fukushima

For reasons given above, the Fukushima Daiichi accident may be expected to produce a more general debate outside Japan, somewhat similar to the political impact from Three Mile Island. The U.S. has never had any major radiological consequences from nuclear accidents, but in Europe, the memory from Chernobyl is still close enough to be remembered by many. One could therefore speculate that the reaction would be stronger in Europe. In any case, the most articulate reactions came in Germany and Italy.

German energy production plans have replaced one political sensitive production method (nuclear energy) by another (dependency of Russian gas) and have lived with criticism since the first steps of this transition were taken. According to the magazine The Economist, “Germany … under its new chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been far too keen on bilateral deals, such as the building of a new under-sea pipeline, heedless of the concerns of its nearest eastern neighbors” (May 11, 2006). In Germany, the latest version of a nuclear phase-out was decided, clearly attributable to the Fukushima accident, to be complete and to occur within 11 years. The corresponding earlier Swedish decision was made after the startup of the units Ringhals and Forsmark 3, assumed at the time of the parliamentarian announcement to have (or be given) a 25-year lifetime. The Swedish position was modified but the much shorter time to the deadline in Germany makes it much more difficult to reverse the decision.

In Italy a court ruling decided in January 2011 that a referendum might validate a change in legal requirements and start planning for nuclear power. It may seem a strange time for the Italian government to ask for such support, but it was the result of a process that had started much earlier. (The question was also awkwardly formulated requiring a yes vote to vote against the nuclear plans, i.e., yes to change existing legal anti-nuclear requirements.)

In contrast to Germany and Italy, Finland and to some extent Sweden represent a trend towards nuclear energy. In Finland the building of a new reactor is well underway, despite a considerable delay. The decision-in-principle was taken in 2002. In Sweden an amendment of the Nuclear Activities Act and the Environmental Code came into force on January 1, 2011. The new legislative amendment makes it possible to gradually replace existing nuclear power reactors with new nuclear power reactors.

Partly because decisions were already made, there was no discussion about the wisdom of nuclear power related to an imminent decision, which could be spurred by the Fukushima accident and that probably influenced the debate climate. In Sweden, the Vattenfall Company submitted on July 31, 2012 a pro forma application to build a new reactor, and the environmental impact consultation process started formally in January 2014.

Influence of Green Politics in Europe

In the final analysis, whatever psychological explanation one might seek out, perhaps the influence of environmental issues in European politics is the most important factor in understanding the European response to Fukushima. Green, in Europe denoting anti-nuclear, parties are influential in most European countries and environmentalism also strongly pervades many other parties such as the German social democrats. Heated nuclear debates have been long-standing features in Austria, Sweden, and Germany with important influence on the political scene, both before and after the TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima accidents.

The European responses such as the German and Italian dramatic decisions should not be seen solely as a political reflex attributable to the Fukushima accident alone. It does reflect a reinforced concern for safety, but this is superimposed on a delicate balance, with long histories and trends, for nuclear policies between European popular views and parliamentary positions.

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