It took two days before the Geiger counters outside Ukraine started to buzz: On April 28, 1986, the instruments at the Swedish nuclear power station Forsmark registered soaring radiation levels. Fearing a malfunction of their plant, the engineers were puzzled to find that the radiation was much higher on the outside rather than inside the reactor halls.
The cloud of radioactive particles that emanated from the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl on April 26 had reached the rest of Europe, raising fears, confusion, and starting a sometimes-fierce debate about the future of nuclear energy.
Even though the disaster that occurred 25 years ago today caused Europe to reconsider atomic energy, nuclear plants still power much of the Continent. But the recent events at the Fukushima plant in Japan have strengthened the case of the opposition. That growing unease was on display Monday when 120,000 people demonstrated against nuclear energy in Germany, while in France several thousand gathered at the power plants in Fessenheim and Cattenom.
Nowhere is the scope of the European debate more apparent than in these two countries.
“The French are discussing their energy mix,” says Thibault Madelin, who writes on energy issues for the French business daily Les Echos. “But given that almost 80 percent of France’s electricity is provided by nuclear power, I can’t see that anyone apart from the Green Party is asking for the country to get rid of nuclear energy altogether.”
Both the governing center-right UMP party of President Nicholas Sarkozy and the main opposition, the Socialists, are keen to show their commitment to nuclear power. About 200,000 French jobs depend on the industry.
The picture could not be more different across the border in Germany. Here, phasing out nuclear energy generation is not a question of if, but when.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is using the term “Energiewende” (energy turning point) as if it had been one of her election campaign issues. But it was Mrs. Merkel’s nuclear-friendly coalition government as late as in 2010 had decreed a 12-year delay of the plan to shut down all nuclear reactors by 2022.
The Fukushima incident has practically silenced all debate in Germany about prolonging the use of nuclear power, which provides 25 percent of the country’s electricity, and put pressure on Merkel to end nuclear power.
“Germany is probably the only major economy in the world where all political parties agree on phasing out nuclear energy,” says Prof. Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). “That fact even outshines the ambitious German target of reaching 80 percent renewable energy by 2050.”
Critics accuse Merkel of trying to earn green credentials for switching off German reactors while still importing cheap nuclear energy from France and the Czech Republic. But the fact remains that politically in Germany you cannot win by supporting nuclear energy. In France, politicians cannot win by backing away from it.
“It’s to do with Chernobyl,” says Thibault Madelin. “That cloud never arrived in France. We were told the fallout would not cross our borders and we believed it. In Germany, people got scared. And it changed everything, even if the scare wasn’t real.”