About Nuclear Energy and Governance

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Munich, April 2011

The recent events in Japan, provoking a major incident at the power plant Fukushima, has brought many to think over again about the relevance and the safety of nuclear energy generation. As a French and German citizen and having spent respectively about half of my life in each country, I have been witnessing very different situations and types of reactivities in the people about nuclear power generation and incidents in each of these countries.

Despite of numerous past incidents, from minor ones, that are known but of which impact on public opinion remained relatively low or not obvious, the more these have been poorly reported, documented or published, to the major incident of Chernobyl, for which the adverse effects have been conspicuous, nuclear energy has regained a number of adepts as a “climate-friendly” source of energy, ignoring the low to large range risks of this technology, and the problems caused by nuclear wastes to current and future generations. The current French president, Sarkosy, is a declared strong supporter of nuclear energy, and the current German Chancellor, Merkel, has also seen in nuclear energy a mean to meet the imposed climate protection goals.

I do not mean here to slander my country of birth and the one that made my education, nor to lack gratitude to my new home country, but I am a citizen of both and intend to behave as such, thus to express my opinion and use my suffrage and rights about the policies and governmental decisions that are going to influence not only the future of both countries but will certainly have impacts beyond their borders. As for the policies about nuclear energy, there are things that I consider as disturbing, and for which I have felt to share my opinion with this article.

A few digits

The following table compares a number of basic data on nuclear power in France and Germany to give some insight on the situation of both countries.

Country Number of nuclear reactors Megawatt capacity Nuclear share of electricity production Share of nuclear power production exported Costs of nuclear accidents since 2006-2009
(in millions 2006 US$)
France 58 63,236 78.8% 18% 62
Germany 17 20,339 26.1% Importer 910

Table 1: Facts on Nuclear power in France and Germany in 2009[1][2][3]

Situation in France

Any French person of at least my generation and older will be familiar with the slogan “En France, on n’a pas de pétrole, mais on a des idées.” (In France, we don’t have oil, but we do have ideas) with which the French government introduced an energy policy strongly based on nuclear power generation as a response to the oil crisis in the 1970’s. And this source of electricity has been developed successfully since then to the point that nuclear power represents around 80% of the French energy production, representing the highest generator-to-population ratio in the world[4] and France is able to export nuclear power – among other to Germany. But, with this highly developed technology, electricity is not only nuclear product that France exports: It is also an exporter of nuclear technology and… nuclear waste.

As a matter of fact, France has been implicated in many building projects of nuclear plants worldwide, comprising most controversial projects such as in Israel and Libya[5], in regions of permanent or recurrent armed conflicts, and Chile[6], a region particularly prone to natural catastrophes, where it is allowed to doubt about the security of such ventures, while the collaboration of French enterprises and negotiations of the French head of government in person with leaders of countries where human rights are tread upon to support the achievement of those projects[4] is utmost questionable.

From the above, it is manifest that France is not only highly reliant on nuclear power for its own energy consumption, this technology represents also big business, it generates gross domestic product – and money does not smell.

The current debate, in the context of the events at Fukushima, on the relevance of quitting nuclear power is understandably, in this light, rather luke in the French press and on the political scene compared to debates in Germany. Beside of the Green Party, no party in France addresses seriously a turn toward alternative sources[7]. The events at Fukushima in Japan do not undermine the least Sarkosy’s position on the French nuclear policy and remains “convinced of its relevance”[8]. In the opposition, the Socialist Party rejects the proposal of a referendum, judged as “rushed” and the head of the Socialist Party, Ségolène Royal, judges that it is “indecent to politicize nuclear energy so early after the Fukushima catastrophe”[9] (emphasise by the author). Sarkozy announced that an audit will be performed at all the French nuclear plants “once we have received the totality of the elements as a feedback from the Japanese experience”.[10] When will be that? Indeed, it may be a better idea to consider a referendum if at all and an audit at an indeterminate date, when the attention of a volatile public will have turned to something else, for example when the lingering social problems in France will have come back to the front of the scene, such as, among others, when the problems of employment will prevail again on people’s security – and to postpone such decisions until everybody will have forgotten that it had to be done.

It is clear that a switch to alternative sources of energy will not be possible in France on the short term. However, the French politicians do not show the slightest willingness of even a progressive change and further investments are made in new nuclear projects instead of the development of green energy sources. France’s reliance on nuclear energy is currently high, but, in France, they do have ideas, don’t they? And France’s quite large territory, offering a range of climates and sources, certainly equally offers diverse potentials for a change. Moreover, innovation has proven an economic drive rather than sitting back on “old” technology. Neither Chernobyl nor Fukushima have been lesson enough – is there a need for a major nuclear incident on the French territory to drive a move?

Situation in Germany

In Germany, the situation is quite the reverse of the situation in France. The national plants provide only 26% of the country’s consumption.

Germany too had been supporting nuclear power after the oil crisis in the 1970’s, but the Chernobyl accident has traumatized the German population: During the period that followed the contamination of the German territory by the nuclear plume, despite of poor information by the authorities but on the recommendations by independent monitoring stations[11], the Germans avoided staying outdoors, took intensive showers after a prolonged stay outside, left shoes outside the door, drank no milk, ate preferably canned food, etc. – while the nuclear plume remained largely ignored in France and the French were mocking the German “angst”. Following the Chernobyl event, the Socialist Democratic Party took the resolution of phasing out nuclear power, the last nuclear plant was commissioned in 1989[12]. However, Merkel’s government set at the end of 2010 a moratorium on the phasing out of nuclear energy, arguing that quitting nuclear energy on the short term was necessary to keep electricity prices low, ensure supply stability and meet the climate protection goals[13] – while the 60% on the benefits that were to be paid to the government by the nuclear energy providers in exchange of the prolongation of operation period, partly as nuclear fuel tax, partly to be transferred directly to the “promotion fund for renewable energies”[14] were certainly not to despise. In spite of a persisting opposition in the public opinion, Merkel’s moratorium has been received with a relatively weak resistance.

The events in Japan gave a new turn to the situation: The voices of opponents of nuclear power are getting loud again, the “smiling sun” logo (“Nuclear energy? No, thanks”) knows a rebirth, the first electoral results after Fukushima has exhorted the government to revise their policies. The German government was bound to reconsider the moratorium and the politicians changed radically their discourse. The seven oldest German nuclear plants have temporarily been closed[15][16] and may be decommissioned for good instead of having their operation time prolonged as planned in the frame of the moratorium.

Are these only temporary measures and discourses until public flurry will have faded? And, if these resolutions are held, is there a German nuclear-free future in view?

Germany currently imports nuclear energy, among others from France. An argumentation against the phasing out of nuclear energy in Germany was among others that it would be then necessary to import more nuclear energy in order to avoid supply gaps. However Germany exported e.g. alone during the first quarter of 2010 an excess of 9 billion kilowatt hours to which green electricity production made a substantial contribution[17]. Whatever the absurdities of the economic or political system that leads to such situations, a true phasing out would imply stopping also imports of nuclear energy, which may impair the diplomatic relationships with the nuclear adept that is France, the more this would have an important impact on the management and financial resources of the French nuclear development companies – and Sarkosy has already expressed in the past his concerns on this point to Merkel.[18]

As a matter of fact, large German companies are involved in development of nuclear projects abroad: Among others, Siemens offers expertise in this field and holds shares in the French Areva nuclear concern[18], Voith provides equipment for the building of nuclear plants[19]. The most powerful banks of Germany, Deutsche Bank as the prominent leader, Commerzbank, and HypoVereinsbank have together invested between 2000 and 2009 over 14 billion Euros in international nuclear energy projects[20]. France, due to its politics, represents of course a juicy market, which is certainly not easy for investors to disregard.

Germany supports further the French nuclear energy production in which it accepts each year nuclear waste from France at the intermediate storage site of Gorleben, which gives also each year rise to spectacular and violent conflicts between the opponents of nuclear energy and the authorities.

Clearly, a country’s commitment in nuclear energy is not restricted to its self-sufficiency, but its influence can reach over borders and such decisions are not restricted to governmental policies.

Secure and cheap, you said?

When the authorities deliver information about irradiation risks, they mention only doses that are deemed to potentially cause cancer, while the real number of cancers after the drift of the Chernobyl radioactive plume over Europe might have more or less deliberately played down[21]. I got the first obvious symptoms of Hashimoto's thyroiditis about two years after the Chernobyl incident. It will never be possible to prove the direct relationship between the two facts, but, generally, cases of Hashimoto's thyroiditis increased dramatically in Europe in the young population after the Chernobyl incident, as well as other diseases like, among many others, diabetes and diverse severe respiratory injuries that are not officially recognized as possible consequences of nuclear irradiation[21]. As a matter of fact, the effects of irradiations at lower doses (such as e.g. can emanate as a result of a minor incident or regular leaks from the cooling system or waste storage) than the ones attested to cause cancer are poorly known, and there have been few efforts to get profound knowledge on this topic, since, then, this might have led to increased and fiercer opposition of the public against nuclear energy. At the time of Chernobyl, the accident had been mocked as a deficient technology resulting from an equally wonky communist system. This time it happened at a product of the Western technology. Yet, the discourse by the adepts of nuclear energy after this last incident has not changed much: “The technical excellence, the rigorousness, the independency and the transparency of our security systems are recognised worldwide” says Sarkosy[8]. Read between the lines: “Our technology is the best one; this is never going to happen to us”. Current French nuclear development projects, however, do not seem to work up to the Presidents esteem: numerous delays, cost overruns, and defects are reported from the current Finnish and Flamanville construction sites[22][23].

At Chernobyl, the explosion resulted from a human mistake; at Fukushima, from a natural catastrophe. In both cases, something happened that had surpassed the imagination of the planners of the plant. Northern Europe is not prone to seismic activity? But, according to current forecasts relating to climate change, the number of extreme weather events will rise. Violent storms and extensive floods could lead to the breaking of the power supply to the cooling system of reactors, as this has been the case at Fukushima. As a foretaste, during the extreme heat of the 2003 summer, numerous EDF reactors had to be stopped, as it was impossible to cool them[22]. The plants are protected against a possible bombarding during a war? But how far can the best organisation and security system prevent the infiltration of terrorists? And one could think more of such situations.

One argument commonly used to support nuclear energy is that it is energy produced at low costs. However, this statement does not take into account a number of “auxiliary” costs like the building of the plants. According to a study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, including building, management, and operating costs promotes nuclear energy to the “the costliest option among all main competitors”[23]. Note that the study still has omitted, for example, the costs of uranium mining, the social costs resulting from the direct and indirect victims of minor incidents to major accidents, decommissioning, renovations, and management of waste. The costs for security equipment will moreover certainly increase as a consequence of the higher requirements resolutions taken by the European Union after the Fukushima accident. These costs are in part supported by public organisations, therefore, the price at which nuclear energy is sold does not reflect its actual costs, which you pay indirectly in form of your taxes, even if you have switched for long to a green energy provider.

So what?

A friend of mine said once: “Politics is too important to be leaved to the politicians.”. About 53 to 60 % of the German wish the phasing out of nuclear energy as fast as possible[24], while the opinion over nuclear energy in general is rather split in France, though however, the number of opponents has been slowly but steadily rising for the last years.[25]. However, political and economic decisions are often not met in accordance to the people’s opinion, be it, among others about energy policies, genetically modified organisms, or educational budgets and programmes.

How often do I hear “I don't vote because I am not interested in politics” or “The government does nothing”?

But politics is about how much tax you pay, how your tax money is spent, about public services you use every day, the education and cultural opportunities you have access to, the laws that protect you... Environmental policies are about are about the air you breathe, the food you eat, the water you drink or use in your home, the place you live in... Shortly, politics influence in our society almost every step of our lives. They do affect all of us – nobody can argue that he or she is not “interested” in his or her own life.

The word “democracy” means “power by the people”. According to the definition of democracy, its members (the people) are supposed to participate to political decision-making. Therefore, a democracy can only be called as such if its members do not express their opinions. Not everybody will have the temperament or the necessary energy of an opinion leader, but the least one can do to maintain a real democracy is simply participating to elections to choose representatives, and express your disapproval if things have not been made up to your expectations. In a democracy, the people is the government, it is not only the matter of politicians. Even in a political system where politicians are elected, but citizens remain passive or are not at all or insufficiently implicated in governmental decision-making, you cannot speak about a real democracy, this should rather be called “autocracy”.

Due to globalisation, our daily decisions, actions or inactions do not have effects on your own life only, neither are these effects restricted to your near environment, they do reach, indeed, beyond borders and your lifestyle can affect the life of many people around the world – be it the fuel you have consumed directly or indirectly that have caused forest death thousands of kilometres away, the food you eat or the roses you buy for Valentine's day that have caused cancers in African or South-American-workers and desertification in their countries due to intensive pesticide use and overconsumption of the local water resources, the electronic gadgets you enjoy and the clothes you wear that have been manufactured in complete disregard of the human rights and dignity of Chinese, Indian or Afghan workers... and, to come back to nuclear energy, the resources of energy you consume and how much energy you consumed that will affect the life and health of millions of people among the present and future generations in case of an accident or as the result of uranium mining and mismanagement or uncontrollable amounts of nuclear waste.

There are very simple things you can do about it without becoming a frantic activist:

  • See how you can reduce your energy consumption, e.g. switch TV and such instead of leaving them on standby, if you have a small garden, use a manual lawnmower instead of an electrical one (you will do something for your fitness by the same opportunity), etc.
  • When buying a new electrical device, check on its energy efficiency: There are e.g. labels for energy consumption categories defined by the European community.
  • Participate to elections and watch the news to check governmental decisions – express your opinion loudly if promises have not been held or if you do not agree with these decisions, sign petitions.
  • If possible, switch to an energy provider that offers exclusively green energy.
  • If possible, and if you can afford it, equip your home with solar panels, a small wind mill and/or a geothermal heat pump.
  • Encourage local ventures like the installation of solar panels on supermarket roofs.
  • Change of bank for a bank that invests in environmental and ethical projects. Check how your funds are invested.
  • ...and you may think of many other possibilities!


  1. Wikipedia, 2011: Nuclear power by country. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_by_country
  2. Wikipedia, 2011: Nuclear power accidents by country. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_accidents_by_country
  3. Wikipedia, 2011: Nuclear power in France. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_in_France
  4. 4.0 4.1 Nunès N.: Sarkozy "un VRP d'Areva qui voulait vendre une centrale nucléaire à Kadhafi". Le Monde, 2011. http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2011/03/16/sarkozy-un-vrp-d-areva-qui-voulait-vendre-une-centrale-nucleaire-a-kadhafi_1494030_823448.html
  5. Wikipedia, 2011: Industrie nucléaire en France. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Énergie_nucléaire_en_France
  6. Green et Vert, 2011: Chili : Nucléaire et tremblements de terre peuvent-ils faire bon ménage? http://www.greenetvert.fr/2010/10/27/nucleaire-et-tremblements-de-terre-peuvent-ils-faire-bon-menage/9806
  7. Samuel L.: Le "lobby nucléaire" existe à gauche comme à droite. Le Monde, 2011. http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2011/03/15/le-lobby-nucleaire-existe-a-gauche-comme-a-droite_1493284_823448.html
  8. 8.0 8.1 Le Monde, 2011a: Sarkozy convaincu de la "pertinence" du nucléaire pour la France. http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2011/03/16/sarkozy-reaffirme-la-pertinence-du-nucleaire-pour-la-france_1493802_823448.html#ens_id=1493266
  9. Piquard A.: PS : "Un référendum sur le nucléaire, c'est précipité". Le Monde, 2011. http://www.lemonde.fr/politique/article/2011/03/14/ps-un-referendum-sur-le-nucleaire-c-est-precipite_1493134_823448.html
  10. Leparmentier A.: Sarkozy au Japon “dès que possible”. Le Monde, 2011. http://elysee.blog.lemonde.fr/2011/03/17/nicolas-sarkozy-veut-se-rendre-au-japon-des-que-possible/
  11. H. Helmers, J. Pade, 2001: Zur Bedeutung unabhängiger Radioaktivitätsmessstellen für die Umgebungsüberwachung. Universität Oldenburg, Unabhängige Radioaktivitätsmessstelle. http://uwa.physik.uni-oldenburg.de/1586.html
  12. World Nuclear Association, 2011: Nuclear Power in Germany. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf43.html
  13. Zeit Online, 2010: Merkel hält längere Laufzeiten für sinnvoll. http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2010-08/akw-laufzeiten-merkel
  14. Preuschoff B.: Bund: Vereinbarung mit AKW-Betreibern nur zum Förderfonds. FinanzNachrichten.de http://www.finanznachrichten.de/nachrichten-2010-09/17927558-bund-vereinbarung-mit-akw-betreibern-nur-zum-foerderfonds-015.htm
  15. Stern, 2011: Sieben AKW werden vorerst abgeschaltet. http://www.stern.de/politik/deutschland/bundesregierung-reagiert-auf-atomunfall-in-japan-sieben-akw-werden-vorerst-abgeschaltet-1663781.html
  16. Stern, 2011b: Welcher Meiler wie lange läuft. http://www.stern.de/politik/deutschland/atomkraftwerke-in-deutschland-welcher-meiler-wie-lange-laeuft-1663576.html
  17. Janzing B., 2010: Deutschland: Stromexport-Weltmeister. Klimaretter.info http://www.klimaretter.info/energie/hintergrund/6271-deutschland-stromexport-weltmeister
  18. 18.0 18.1 Postdamer Neuerste Nachrichten, 2007: „Deutschland soll Atomkraft nicht aufgeben“ Sarkozy trifft Merkel in Meseberg. http://www.pnn.de/titelseite/36851/
  19. ecomBETZ Public Relations, 2008: Voith Vorecon for European Pressurized Water Reactor. In: News: The customer magazine of Voith Turbo, 02/2008. http://www.voithturbo.com/media/vt_news_2008_02_gb_screen.pdf
  20. Soth A., 2011: Der Kernenergie-Boom und seine Nutznießer. Hintergrund http://www.hintergrund.de/201103141440/globales/umwelt/der-kernenergie-boom-und-seine-nutzniesser.html
  21. 21.0 21.1 Pr. Fernex M., 1996: A propos des congrès officiels (OMS, AIEA...) sur Tchernobyl http://www.dissident-media.org/infonucleaire/michel_fernex.html
  22. 22.0 22.1 Lhomme S., 2011: Crise nucléaire : le gouvernement français victime du "syndrome MAM". Le Monde. http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2011/03/14/crise-nucleaire-le-gouvernement-francais-victime-du-syndrome-mam_1492847_3232.html
  23. 23.0 23.1 Lovins A. B. et al., 2008: Forget Nuclear: RMI Solutions final version for press 6 April 2008. http://www.rmi.org/rmi/Library/E08-04_ForgetNuclear
  24. GMX International, 2011: Deutsche wenden sich radikal von der Atomkraft ab. http://www.gmx.net/themen/nachrichten/erdbeben/427d53e-deutsche-sind-gegen-atomkraft
  25. Chiffres et statistiques : Baromètre d’opinion sur l’énergie et le climat en 2010. http://www.statistiques.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/167_CS_barometre_energie_et_climat_2010_cle088d66.pdf

Also worth reading on this topic:

Bailly O., 2009: Déchets nucléaires, un cauchemar durable. Agora Vox. http://www.dissident-media.org/infonucleaire/michel_fernex.htm

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