COMMENT: How to dismantle the atomic industry (and burst the bubble of the nuclear revival folly)

ingressimage_fukushima.jpg Photo: NTV Japan

Last September, when the worst had apparently passed at Fukushima and the headline frenzy had somewhat died down, the nuclear industry mounted a massive counterstrike, desperate to reclaim its former positions of influence. The International Atomic Energy Agency announced at an annual session of its General Conference that the nuclear industry was not giving up on new reactor construction – because the industry’s new reactors are absolutely safe.

Alas, this new bright world of absolutely safe reactors is a parallel reality where the nuclear industry likes to escape to avoid real problems. And in this, plain, reality problems abound.

The year 2012 alone – barely three or four months into the year – has not exactly been a cornucopia of good news for the industry. Bulgaria has informed the Russian State Nuclear Corporation, Rosatom, that it made a decision to stop the construction of Belene, a nuclear power plant Russia was anxious to build in that country to Rosatom’s design. This was the first time since Fukushima that a reactor construction contract that had come into full legal force has been dissolved – a serious blow to the reputation of a powerful corporation that had counted on the deal to demonstrate to the world at large that Russian reactors had finally passed the European Union’s rigorous safety standards.

Bank Austria, which is a subsidiary of the Italian UniCredit, has decided to cut off a credit line it previously issued to a Slovak company that is building Reactor Units 3 and 4 at Mochovce in Slovakia. Elsewhere in Europe, the energy giants RWE and E.On have announced they were abandoning several reactor projects in Great Britain. And Germany, formerly one of the world’s most nuclear-dependent nations, last year declared a complete nuclear phase-out – a step that is part of its revolutionary $263 billion energy strategy that will see renewable energy sources fully replace the seventeen nuclear power plants Germany intends to close before 2022.

Similar moves have been made since the Fukushima disaster by Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, and even Japan, where one single reactor has been left to continue operation out of that country’s total of fifty-four. In an interview published in Forbes, the now retired head of Exelon – the largest nuclear operator in the United States – has intimated new reactor construction shows dim prospects as nuclear power plants will unlikely become economically competitive in the foreseeable future.

This list of disconcerting reports is far from over and is growing rapidly. All the more surreal, then, that the Russian government repeatedly states its undying support for the “peaceful atom” and an unyielding determination to push for nuclear development everywhere Rosatom believes it has a snowball’s chance in hell – no matter how unwelcome the offer.

Beyond Russia, in those other parts of the world where the line between real and surreal is less readily obscured by either misplaced belief or willful propaganda, the Japanese tragedy has triggered a tsunami wave of mistrust toward nuclear power. But it would be naïve to think that emotion alone has accounted for the widespread backlash. In the year that has passed, the hottest heads would have long cooled down among politicians and business leaders – even those who rarely miss a chance to cash in on a vociferous public outcry. The engineering giant Siemens, for one, has decided to opt out of the nuclear power business – and Siemens’s boardroom is hardly the place one would go look for impressionable minds or die-hard anti-nuclear activists.

Many of the political and business decisions being made now in the very different countries that are revisiting their stance on nuclear power have been fermenting for years. Many have a long history of painstaking, unrelenting, and oftentimes courageous efforts by groups and initiatives of all stripes doing work that spans the full spectrum of civil activism, from mass protests to lobbying of politicians or energy companies. Fukushima’s ferocious blasts served to blow the lid off a long-boiling pot. And here are just a few examples.

Bulgaria’s decision to terminate the Belene contract is the result of many years of hard work by an international coalition of environmental organizations. The project was started in 1985, but a study by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences since established significant seismic risks in the area, a finding that prompted the first decision to shut the Belene project down in the early 1990s.

A decade later, the project was reanimated and the construction deal was awarded to a joint bid by Rosatom and the French-German Areva NP. When in 2007 and 2008 the new bedfellows set out in search of European investors for Belene, environmentalists launched a massive campaign to stop private banks from providing loan funds to the project. The dozens of protests that took place outside bank branches and offices across the world were meant to deliver to the potential investors a strong message warning of the danger of building a nuclear power plant in an earthquake-prone area. These efforts finally led to refusals to invest into Belene on the part of some of Europe’s largest banks: Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, UniCredit, Société Géneral, Citibank, Credit Suisse, BNP Paribas, and Hypovereinsbank. Pressure was also brought to bear on several companies that had been approached with partnership offers to participate in the Belene project. Germany’s RWE even agreed to sign on as a strategic investor, but begged off in 2009.

A similar situation has developed with one of Russia’s domestic projects – Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in the country’s westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad Region. It is with a stretch that this project would be counted as domestic construction since Kaliningrad is an energy-saturated region and the Baltic site is being built to export electricity abroad. Rosatom has for several years now been looking for a European investor to take part in the project – all to no avail. Because Rosatom is expected to seek private funding for its other reactor projects in the future, this hopeless exercise in investor chasing may occur time and again and still get nowhere. Russian activists have a chance to apply the tried and true tactic their colleagues have perfected in Europe to bring pressure on financial institutions Rosatom turns to for support – and the best piece of advice that could be given to the banks that place a premium on their reputation is to avoid any dealings with the nuclear industry.

Germany is another illustrative example of successful anti-nuclear efforts – albeit of a different nature. Germans can offer expertise in organizing truly large-scale protest rallies that force the nuclear industry to sustain colossal losses – such as last year’s sit-in railway blockade that gathered around 20,000 near the nuclear waste storage facility in Gorleben in an attempt to block a train delivery of nuclear reprocessing waste from France. As someone with firsthand experience in taking part in this and previous rallies, I can testify that the police there will sometimes be less than restrained in their use of force trying to disperse protesters and clear the tracks for the arriving train – but that doesn’t stop those who want their voice to be heard and reckoned with from chaining themselves to the rails

German society fought for the nuclear phase-out for over thirty years – a fight so recognized in its own right it gave rise to a whole segment of mass culture – and the government’s decision to call it quits with nuclear energy did not come about because this or that political party came to power, though the Greens did, of course, play an important role. The decision was made because it was German society’s choice to have the country’s nuclear reactors shut down, and ordinary citizens made sure the elected officials heeded these demands. Indeed, was it not their right to insist that politicians face and accept the verdict long reached by the public, that the risks nuclear power poses are not acceptable – not after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and, now, Fukushima?

Nuclear phase-out, furthermore, is both an economically sensible solution and is feasible from the point of view of modern technologies that can help compensate for the outgoing generating capacities. Germany already leads the race in renewable energy development and its example makes for an instructive counter-argument for skeptics who doubt that wind and solar can replace the atom. The share of renewables in Germany’s energy production complex has reached 20 percent. Solar installations, as latest data show, can on clear days cover as much as 40 percent of total energy demand. The reason all this became possible was not the German politicians and energy providers’ exceptional visionary gift – but their good sense to listen to the public at large. No political party in Germany will now dare go against the wishes of their voters where it concerns issues of energy and environmental policies, not openly anyway.

But Germany is not the only country that has seen mass-scale anti-nuclear protests in latest history. Dozens of thousands have been rallying over the past months against the launch of Rosatom-built Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. More protests are likely to erupt in Turkey, where Rosatom is planning construction of a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu – a deal Moscow and Ankara have had under discussion for several years but that has run into enough snags to be facing dim prospects at best, and Turkey’s anti-nuclear movement has vigorously resisted the project for two decades.

The nuclear industry can be successfully opposed. For instance, one joint campaign that Russian and German environmentalists led for five years resulted in 2009 in the cancellation of a contract by which Germany exported to Russia radioactive waste that was generated as by-product of uranium enrichment. The strategy for this campaign included protest actions in both countries as well as lobbying of large commercial companies that were involved in the exports.

Granted, in Russia, organizing truly mass-scale protests remains a daunting task.

A little over twenty years ago, soon after the world’s greatest nuclear catastrophe, the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, a civil movement emerged in what was then the Soviet Union – one that was not unlike what was then taking root in Germany. Using methods that were very similar to those employed by German activists – mass-scale protest campaigns – this movement succeeded in deep-freezing the Soviet nuclear reactor construction program. It did not, however, manage to survive the turbulent 1990s, a decade of post-Soviet upheaval that took Russia through an arduous transition to a market economy, with millions plunged below the poverty line. Twenty-some years later, only a handful of non-governmental organizations still exist whose activist experience spans back to the events of the 1980s. Were it not for the economic collapse of the 1990s, Russia and Germany might well have been leading the way of today’s energy revolution together.

But resistance to new nuclear reactor projects is once again burgeoning in Russia. In Murom, a small old town in Central European Russia’s Vladimir Region, demonstrations in 2009 and 2010 brought together between 3,000 and 5,000 residents at a time, rallying against the construction of Nizhny Novgorod Nuclear Power Plant, for which Rosatom proposed a site just twenty kilometers away. The Russian government nurtures plans to build some twenty-six new reactors before 2030, but there are more than a few regions in Russia where the local population is not particularly fond of the prospect of having a new nuclear power plant built in their backyard. A 2007 poll commissioned by the environmental group Ecodefense! and the Heinrich Boll Foundation to ROMIR, a representative of Gallup International in Russia and a leader in public opinion surveys in the country, revealed that around 78 of Russian citizens think negatively of new nuclear power plant projects proposed for the regions where they reside.

It’s hard to discount a sentiment so predominantly unsparing of the nuclear industry, which can offer neither 100-percent safety guarantees for any of its reactors nor any solid economic justifications or incentives to invest into new ones. According to Bulat Nigmatulin, formerly a high-ranking official in Rosatom’s predecessor agency, the Ministry of Atomic Energy, it would be three times as fast and three times as cheap to modernize Russia’s gas-fired power plants to produce the same amount of power that Rosatom expects from its new nuclear power plants.

The seeds of resistance are sprouting in Russian society and are only bound to grow more powerful in the near future – and therein is more bad news for the nuclear industry. It can be brought down, and, thankfully, Russia has plenty of renewable energy potential to replace its old nuclear capacities with.

As for the grand dream of nuclear revival, the rise in public activism that we have seen in the past few years may well serve, just as it happened once in the late 1980s, to dismantle the nuclear development delusion Rosatom has dreamed up – and burst the bubble of the parallel reality it dwells in.   

Vladimir Slivyak, frequent contributor to Bellona, is co-chairman of Ecodefense! and author of the recently published “From Hiroshima to Fukushima,” a compelling account of the nuclear industry’s most recent history, combining a detailed chronicle of the 2011 disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan and an in-depth analysis of the industry’s problems in Russia.

Vladimir Slivyak

ecodefense@gmail.com

Maria Kaminskaya