CONFERENCE REPORT

The debate is won

13 December 2004



The first of Foratom’s biannual European Nuclear Assembly meetings was held on 25-26 November 2004. Its subtitle, ‘Nuclear energy: An essential option for Europe’, gave a clue as to what conclusion the meeting would reach.


As part of the last European Nuclear Conference (ENC), the European Atomic Forum (Foratom) devised and organised the European Energy Event, which aimed to open a “wide-ranging debate on nuclear in the context of energy consumption, sustainable development, security of supply, safety and deregulation.” Two years later, the European Energy Event has reinvented itself in the form of the European Nuclear Assembly (ENA).

This inaugural ENA, held in Brussels, Belgium, at the end of November, followed the same formula as its precursor event. Subtitled Nuclear energy: An essential option for Europe, a series of ‘panel debates’ attempted to explore the role “nuclear energy can play in helping Europe to meet its economic and environmental objectives.” Since all the speakers – billed as “top energy industry executives and prominent figures from the European Union (EU) institutions” – could be described as pro-nuclear, there was, in fact, very little to debate.

The meeting centred around four panel debates:

  • Nuclear energy: dawn of a new era.
  • Nuclear is part of the answer to environmental questions.
  • Nuclear: a persuasive economic option.
  • Nuclear safety: a pan-European approach.
So, a resounding ‘yes’ to the first three points. There was only slight disagreement on the last point. Now that the European Commission (EC) has watered down its proposals to harmonise nuclear safety in its revised ‘nuclear package’ of directives, views on this matter are no longer so polarised as they once were.

Christian Waeterloos, EC director for nuclear energy, acknowledged that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency are developing guidelines in the area of nuclear safety. However, he wondered whether this provided some member states with an easy option because these standards “are fundamentally unbinding.”

Waeterloos argued that, since the new member states had their reactors assessed prior to accession, “should we not apply the same methodology to all EU25?” Furthermore, he asked, if there is no common way of evaluating safety standards, how will we be able to convince the public that adequate levels of safety are being reached? He claimed that an arbitrator is required to guarantee that the highest levels of safety have been met, noting: “In the EU institutional framework the arbitrator is normally the EC.”

When asked about common standards across the EU, ENA conference president and CEO of RWE Gert Maichel said he accepts the EC not only has the power to create a single energy market across Europe, but it should also exercise that power. “When it comes to the safety issues, we feel that the Commission also has the task in making sure that there are common standards of safety that everybody has to follow.” The only area of concern is on the question of “if and when the EC wants to introduce a second, third or even fourth level of administration into scrutinising and regulating the industry.” The industry, he said, was against such unnecessary levels of bureaucracy.

Michael Parker, CEO of BNFL, said he believed the level of regulation in the UK is very strong and found it difficult to imagine any benefit in further regulation. He added: “There may be really strong arguments around standardisation,” and believed there should be more discussion in this area.

On the other hand, director general of the French Nuclear Safety Authority André-Claude Lacoste thought that, sooner or later, there would be some kind of top-down European regulation. He said the original EC proposals of January 2003 to harmonise nuclear safety standards gave too much power to the EC. However, with some reservations – particularly over whether the proposals should be binding or non-binding – he believed the most recent version could be accepted.

PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED


Without more areas of disagreement, such a meeting could easily end up simply preaching to the converted. But, given the mess that much of Europe’s nuclear industry is in, perhaps this is not such a bad thing. The troops need to be rallied and must work together to capitalise on what many believe is a build-up in momentum for the industry. And, let’s face it, the industry hasn’t really worked out how it can help ensure that nuclear will continue to provide around a third of the share of electricity generation within the EU.

It is in this area – that is, what the European nuclear industry should be doing in terms of lobbying for itself – that the ENA can provide a perfect forum, according to Maichel. “Such a conference like ENA is greatly needed because we don’t have a technical problem which is against the nuclear industry. We have a political problem and we have got a social communication problem,” both of which have to be solved, he said. ENA is not a symposium, “but should rather offer all of us the opportunity to discuss strategic aspects,” and to “achieve a common understanding of the general conditions for future use of nuclear power.”

A case can therefore be made for a meeting where the industry ends up talking to itself, but only if delegates go away with practical ideas on what they should be doing for the greater good of the industry. Fortunately, many of the speakers gave refreshingly open presentations full of insights into the industry and advice on how to move forward. As John Shepherd, executive director of NucNet, told NEI:

“I think the ENA organisers are to be congratulated. Events such as this are rare. Offering a programme that encourages industry leaders, executives and policymakers to make time to attend – and play an active role – is never easy. As a communicator, I appreciated hearing straight talk from key decision makers and felt that the majority of presentations were ‘fresh’ and informative. I think that holding this event every other year is probably the best way of maintaining the high standard of content and I look forward to ENA 2006.”

It should be pointed out that ENA was organised in cooperation with NucNet, and that Shepherd chaired one of the sessions. Nevertheless, NEI would not beg to differ with his remarks.

KNOW YOUR ENEMY


Early on in the meeting, delegates were warned of the strength and calibre of the opposition. Terry Wynn, member of the European Parliament (MEP), pointed out: “Your opponents are good at using the media. You are less so.” We are in a situation where the media “will print any anti-nuclear story, any press release that they get from the anti-nuclear lobby and take it as fact. And that’s an area that we really do have to work upon.”

Continuing on the revered status of the Greens – in particular, Greenpeace – Wynn said: “It’s hard to dislike words like ‘green’ and ‘peace’. When young people see them put together they really can identify with green and peaceful causes. But here we are – this very rich organisation, accountable to no-one, masters of propaganda, at stunts, at media manipulation. In fact, we really should congratulate them.”

The battle is, however, not lost. “Even if we are up against the likes of Greenpeace we can still win this argument, and we all know it. It’s just about having the guts to try and do it,” Wynn said. But the industry won’t win using technical arguments. Politicians, after all, have difficulty understanding these: “That’s the first thing you’ve got to realise – trying to use a technical argument will not convince politicians.”

Issues such as terrorism and radioactive waste have to be dealt with in language that politicians and the public understand. The industry has to demonstrate not only the safety of the structure in the event of a plane being flown into a nuclear plant, but it must also demonstrate how difficult it would be to fly a plane into a plant in the first place. The industry needs to convince people of the simple truth that “if terrorists really wanted maximum civilian casualties, they’d kill far more people by crashing a plane into Manchester United’s Old Trafford football stadium than they would do by crashing a plane into a nuclear power plant.”

On waste, Wynn told the meeting: “The issue about waste management is the one above all others that the general public needs convincing about,” adding: “That to me is the biggest challenge for our industry – to try and get some confidence into the general public and into the politicians about waste. I’m also convinced that in my own country – the UK – no further decision will be taken on future new build until we’ve solved the problem on what to do with existing waste.”

The task then, is not only one of “getting the message across to a sceptical public that nuclear power cannot be ignored” – this in itself will come as little surprise to many – but to communicate it in a way that would “challenge the misinformation that is churned out,” as Wynn put it. “If you can change the public perception, I guarantee you will change the politicians’ perception – especially those who are led by public opinion.”

DAWN OF A NEW ERA?


While the bloc can take much encouragement from recent new build decisions in France and Finland – and there was no end of reminders during the ENA on these – there was little acknowledgement of the exceptional circumstances surrounding both these countries. And therein lies one of the main challenges: Finland or France can order as many new reactors as they’d like – but this is likely to have no effect on the prospects for new build in, say, the UK or Germany, because each EU member state has its own national energy policy independent of (and often without much regard to) other member states.

Areva chairman Anne Lauvergeon reminded the meeting that the EU still has no integrated energy policy. She said that a strategy should be built which allows each country to decide its own energy policy, but ensures adequate security of supply across the EU – and this of course means that nuclear should remain an important part of the energy mix.

In line with this theme, and coinciding with the meeting, over 20 company chiefs from a dozen European countries, issued a ‘declaration on Europe’s future use of nuclear energy for power generation’. The declaration called upon EU policymakers to:

  • Encourage energy policies that keep all options open.
  • Recognise the contribution nuclear can make to security of supply.
  • Promote low-carbon energy sources.
  • Create a ‘level playing field’ to allow different energy sources to develop and compete under liberalised market conditions.
None of these points would come as any surprise to the industry, and how many industry meetings pass without any call for such action? Maybe it is now time – and the ENA would do well to explore this area in future meetings – to examine what exactly the nuclear industry is asking for. Why, for example, is there a need to ‘create’ a level playing field within a liberalised market? Surely a liberalised market provides a level playing field. And wouldn’t the promotion of low-carbon sources distort any level playing field? Any opponent of the industry would write such a declaration off by saying: “OK, we’ll have a liberalised market, so long as environmentally-friendly nuclear is subsidised to the extent that it is able to ‘compete’ within it.”

While the industry might well convince itself that nuclear energy is seeing the dawn of a new era, the blurring of environmental and economic arguments that the industry is guilty of is counterproductive, MEP Giles Chichester told the meeting, in response to a point made by Joe Colvin, president and CEO of the US Nuclear Energy Institute. Referring to encouraging signs in the USA where, in the state of New Hampshire, the nuclear industry has been granted tradable NOx emissions offset credits, Colvin said: “The issue of tradable credits or monetising the value of the environmental benefits of nuclear is really a key issue which turns the economics.”

Though Chichester agreed that nuclear should be given credit for its environmental benefits – something he himself has argued for in the European Parliament – he warned: “We’re now muddling up again the environmental argument with the economic argument. But solve the economic argument and then you won’t have to worry about the environmental argument.”

Earlier, Chichester had argued: “The persuasive economic case is crucial to the whole issue of maintaining nuclear capacity in the energy supply situation in Europe. One of the most potent arguments that has been put against nuclear by the most fervent opponents has been, of late, the cost issue. And the industry, I have to say, has not been entirely convincing in its response to this challenge. This has been the case for some time.”

This point was reinforced by Helmut Engelbrecht, CEO designate at Urenco, who said that the case for reliability of supply should also be made. “Private and business consumers are striving for quality and reliable supply, and beyond that something that is economically predictable,” he said. In a nutshell, this simply means: “We need to prove that nuclear is a reliable and economically predictable supply of electricity.”

Credit: foratom

Getting ready for the debate on ‘nuclear safety: a pan-European approach’. From left: Laurent Stricker, governing board chairman of the World Association of Nuclear Operators; André-Claude Lacoste, director general of the French Nuclear Safety Authority; Walter Hohlefelder, member of the management board of E.ON Energie; Romana Jordan Cizelj, MEP; John Shepherd, executive director, NucNet



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