In Europe – Germany, Austria, and Italy have renounced nuclear energy, while in Lithuania and Bulgaria the transitions away from nuclear power are not so clear cut, write Lubomir Mitev and Edoardo De Silva for Revolve Magazine.
The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in March 2011 marked an outcry of public opinion in different countries against the building and maintenance of nuclear power plants. The fear of nuclear fall-out caused by the disaster in Japan (still being felt today) has caused some countries such as Germany to renounce the use of nuclear energy, while others such as France continue to rely predominantly on nuclear power; all this in a world marked by rapidly rising demand for energy, no matter its source…
Going Against Nuclear
Following a decision made in 2011, influenced by the Fukushima disaster, the German government announced its plan to quit nuclear power by 2022, hoping to move towards ‘greener’ energy sources. However, these measures have brought an increase of energy costs for citizens: due to financing the rapid expansion of renewable energies, Germany energy bills will increase by 47% in 2013.
In abandoning nuclear energy, Berlin was preceded by its neighbor, Austria, which decided to renounce nuclear power in 1978. Although the construction of the Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant was nearly completed, 50.5% of voters were against nuclear energy in a national referendum. Austria’s energy production system was shaped by a tiny margin of voters who were against the use of atomic power. The country’s only nuclear plant was eventually completed, but never put to use.
In Italy, nuclear energy was rejected in two abrogative referendums: the first in 1987, following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which resulted in the closure of the four existing plants on Italian territory; and the second in June 2011, due to an attempt made by the center-right government to begin construction of a nuclear plant by 2013. The effects of the Fukushima disaster also had a role to play in the latter case, which was evident in the 54.79% turnout of which 94% voted against.
Lithuania in Limbo
In some cases, citizens’ opposition through a referendum has effectively forced governments to accept the non-nuclear option. However, a conflict is brewing in the Baltic state of Lithuania over the same issue. In October 2012, Algirdas Butkevicius’ Social Democratic Party of Lithuania (LSDP) came to power in parliamentary elections over his center-right opponent Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) led by former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius – and the Visaginas nuclear project was rejected by referendum.
Although this nuclear power plant referendum was legally not binding, it showed that a significant 63% of voters were against the project. Mr. Butkevicius backed the public feeling against nuclear energy and declared that the Visaginas project – a 1,300 megawatt reactor built by Hitachi Europe – will be cancelled. Taking into account that electricity prices rose by approximately 30% in 2010 after Lithuania was forced to close Ignalina, a Soviet-era nuclear plant, the result of the referendum and the decision came as a surprise.
However, it appears that the Lithuanian government has not completely abandoned the nuclear option. Seen before as too expensive for a small country, atomic power might make a comeback in Lithuania, despite continuing support for the construction of a liquid natural gas terminal to be completed by the end of 2014. It seems that the final decision will be taken in mid-May 2013.
Bulgaria’s Pending Referendum
Although nuclear referendums always seem to depict rejection from citizens, another one is planned to take place in Bulgaria on January 27, 2013. The Balkan country’s citizens will be called to answer the question “Should nuclear energy be developed in Bulgaria through the construction of new nuclear power units?”, effectively avoiding a direct reference to any potential power plant. The result will decide the fate of the 2,200-megawatt Belene plant, which has been under construction since the mid-1980s.
In the past decade, the Belene project has enjoyed varying degrees of support from different governments, most notably by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, who are now promoting the referendum. Although the project was officially cancelled by the present center-right government in April 2012, pressure from the contractor – Russia’s Atomstroyexport – did not allow the issue to be laid to rest. Now, it is up to the citizens to have the final say.
This referendum is however regarded with skepticism for its purpose and its outcome. Critics consider the outcome meaningless for the fate of Belene that is not even mentioned in the referendum’s question. In the case of a positive outcome, nothing assures that it will be built; should the result be negative “some kind of dialogue will continue because there is too much private sector interest in keeping this project alive”, declares Georgi Vukov of Candole Partners Sofia. It is even doubtful whether the outrageously high requirement for a minimum of 70% of voter turn-out will be fulfilled.
Post-Fukushima, nuclear energy remains a controversial topic amongst Europeans. It remains to be seen if countries that decide to renounce nuclear energy will be able to substitute it with other energy sources and possibly increase the use of clean energy and decrease their dependence from foreign suppliers. It will also be interesting to see how many ask their citizens and how many actually take their opinion into account when making a decision.
Lubomir Mitev is energy and climate analyst, as well as reporter and contributor at 2C, and Edoardo De Silva is energy assistant at Revolve Magazine.