COMMENT: As Germans blaze the trail to a non-nuclear future, polls reveal Russians and six other nations think their countries should follow


Publish date: June 2, 2011

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW – Days before Germany announced its unprecedented move to pull the plug on nuclear energy, an international poll revealed a mounting tide of opposition to the “peaceful atom” in those countries where the technology is used the most – including Russia. Were it to follow Germany’s strict safety standards, Moscow would have to close two thirds of its reactors today. Should it? Ordinary Russians sure seem to think so.

The results of the poll, which was commissioned by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun and published on May 27, show the number of opponents of nuclear energy has grown among the populations of the world’s seven largest nations that rely on nuclear reactors for the production of power. The survey was taken last month in the US, France, China, South Korea, Japan, Germany, and Russia by the US-based Harris Interactive Inc and other companies.

More people than before are now opposed to nuclear power in all seven countries, the poll revealed. In three of the countries surveyed, those opposing nuclear energy outnumbered its proponents: 42 percent of those opposed against 34 percent of those in favour in Japan, 52 percent opposed and 36 in favour in Russia, and 81 percent opposed and 19 percent in favour in Germany.

Respondents were largely asked questions with respect to the nuclear power plants already in operation. But where it concerns the construction of new nuclear power plants, the bitter truth has long stopped to be a mystery to the nuclear industry at least in Russia: A poll conducted by ROMIR as far back as 2007 – the question then was: What would you think about a new nuclear power plant being built in your region? – showed 78 percent of Russians were taking a dim view of plans to build new nuclear reactors near their place of residence.

Another very interesting revelation made by this latest international poll is the number of people concerned about the risks of a nuclear accident occurring in their respective country. Of the total number of respondents, these made 82 percent in South Korea, 80 percent in Russia, and over 70 percent in France, Germany, and China. The case of Russia is all the more curious given the all-out agitprop offensive the Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom launched days after the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi broke out, pumping millions into a campaign to persuade ordinary Russian citizens that no accident of the scope of the Japanese tragedy could ever take place in Russia – and all to no avail.

Justly so. In Russia, 22 out of the 32 reactors currently in operation were designed over 30 years ago, and almost a half of the old ones were built to the same design as the one that blew up in Chernobyl in 1986. More than a few mentions were made about these facts after Fukushima. No wonder, then, that most Russians do heed the danger of the country’s aged reactors and are less than thrilled about having a new one built near where they live. In Germany, the government, just now, came to the decision to shut down eight nuclear reactors for good at once, and close the remaining nine down, one by one, before 2022. If Russia were to follow Germany’s safety standards, two thirds out of all Rosatom reactors would have to be closed immediately.

As for the Germans’ move to part ways with nuclear energy, it surely came into sharp focus for the international community. But it also served to overshadow somewhat a few of the other decisions made by Angela Merkel’s government at this time, and they, too, deserve attention.

To recap, the German government is now decommissioning eight oldest reactors that were initially shut down soon after Fukushima for safety checks. The other, newer, nine reactors will be shut down on a phased basis within the period until 2022. Furthermore, however, because the civil and military fields of application of nuclear energy are so intertwined it is impossible to separate the two, Germany has announced it will insist on a reform of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA.

And other decisions have to do with managing nuclear and radioactive waste. Germany will have to find solutions for dealing with its spent nuclear fuel other than the storage site it is currently using at Gorleben, where radioactive waste resulting from the reprocessing of German spent nuclear fuel – which is done in France – is stored. Germany wants to reserve the option of being able to extract the spent fuel out of the repositories it will build in the future.

The world’s attention is understandably riveted to this heavily nuclear nation’s momentous decision to phase out nuclear energy altogether, but Berlin’s intent to push for a reform of the IAEA and its stance on non-proliferation, as well as its decisions with regard to the disposal of nuclear waste, are no less significant. The ever unsolvable problem of nuclear waste is a serious challenge, and that civil and defence nuclear industries are inextricably connected has likewise been one of the most heated points of the nuclear debate.  

The thankless argument around the close ties between civil and military nuclear technologies goes back a long time. The IAEA’s mandate covers both the issues of safety of the commercial nuclear sector and the cause of curbing the proliferation of nuclear arms. But most of the countries that have acquired the A-bomb in the recent decades – India, Pakistan, Israel, and others – did so by first gaining access to commercial reactor designs. This is why the concept of the nuclear reactor market stands, to an extent, in contradiction to the interests of nuclear non-proliferation. It is obvious, meanwhile, that however much it might want to, the IAEA simply cannot support the development of atomic energy in non-nuclear countries and keep a tight rein on the spread of nuclear weapons all at the same time. And that such a powerful industrial heavyweight as Germany feels it is time to speak its mind about the risks of trying to have one’s nuclear cake and eat it, too, makes it harder to ignore the problem. It might be reasonable to anticipate that with enough effort applied, it could be possible to call into question the very legitimacy of international trade in nuclear reactors, a market where Russia has high hopes of securing a big share of profits.

The German decision to have the option available to retrieve nuclear waste from a repository is no less interesting and only serves to prove that – at this point in the nuclear industry’s development, at least – it remains impossible to come up with a technology that would keep the many thousands of tonnes of waste accumulated by the industry safely isolated from the surrounding environment for the very long period that it will present a hazard. No country has yet been able to find a solution to this problem, which means that thousands of future generations who will inherit this waste will be forced to spend enormous funds to maintain the nuclear repositories in a safe condition.

Another nuclear delusion is thus dispelled – that new technologies could at this time help find a way out of the nuclear waste predicament. It was all the more surprising, then, to read, in a May 31 report by RIA Novosti, about an assertion made by Rosatom saying that all problems with nuclear waste could be solved in Russia with RUR 400 billion ($14.25 billion) within 30 years. In fact, what we are witnessing is yet another attempt by the nuclear corporation to finagle a gigantic sum of money out of the state budget for what is quite obviously another wild goose chase.

The same was the case four years ago, when the government was adopting a new nuclear construction programme that envisioned an immense number of new reactors – a huge endeavour that was unfeasible from the get-go for the one simple reason that Russia does not have enough machine-building capacities. To be sure, though, Rosatom doesn’t want to solve the problem of nuclear and radioactive waste at all. What it wants is to bury as much of it as possible and forget about it – out of sight, out of mind. It’s of the least concern to Rosatom’s current management that this waste will remain highly hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years and all of the burial sites and repositories Rosatom intends to build will have crumbled down long before the waste stops being radioactive, with more than a tangible likelihood that the radiation will start leaking into the surrounding environment.

Speaking of crumbling down: Another big myth busted by the German government’s announcement that it was saying goodbye to nuclear energy was that the decision had been made about 10 years ago by the “greens,” that it had no broad support to speak of, and that as soon as a new government came to power, the decision would be annulled. At least, this was the point of view that was actively pushed through the official media channels in Russia. Just a quick reminder: It is the Christian Democrats who are now in power in Germany, and the decision to stop using nuclear power was taken by no accident – not because someone sneaked into the government and twisted the right arms – but because German society sent a clear enough message about what it did or didn’t want. No other issue prompts hundreds of thousands of people to gather for nation-wide demonstrations several times a year, clamouring to be reckoned with.     

Before the catastrophe erupted at Fukushima Daiichi, environmentalists could only dream of the day when a country like Germany would assume such a tough position on nuclear energy. But as time passes and the Japanese accident barely yields to efforts to control and mitigate the damage, as political resolve is growing across nations to dispense with the “peaceful atom” – decisions that translate into more and more new contracts hoped for and now lost to the world’s major nuclear companies – the ultimate cost that the Japanese tragedy will incur on the global nuclear industry is only bound to grow. Last week, Switzerland abandoned its nuclear energy development plans, and Japan had done the same a week before. Italy may be next – but very unlikely, last – in line. The nuclear industry is hardly anywhere near the end of this sad chapter of its history.

A journalist asked me the other day whether Germany’s decision was to be taken seriously – after all, the same step had taken  a decade ago, and last year, Chancellor Merkel changed it and extended instead the operational life spans of the country’s reactors by another dozen of years. The difference, I said, is that the decision of 2011 has already resulted in the immediate closure of a half of Germany’s seventeen reactors. Ironically, the chancellor shut down exactly those reactors that the “greens” wanted but failed to stop a decade ago. When history closes this chapter, though, it will not be the German government that will be credited with the achievement – but the Japanese nuclear industry.

Vladimir Slivyak, a frequent contributor to Bellona Web, is co-chair of Ecodefence!