Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Those who have a nuclear power plant should take care of it, next point in the agenda

Adelina Marini, May 31, 2011

More or less this is how not the small part, dedicated to nuclear safety, of the final declaration from the two-day summit of the G8 sounds, that was held in the French city of Deauville, Normandy. The document is quite long and, except the initiative the Deauville Partnership, the part related to nuclear safety is among the longest "commitments" of the leaders of the eight most developed industrialised countries. I am putting the quotation marks as my expectations on this point were much higher, given the timing and the motives for this issue to be tackled at all in the first place.

Everything started from the grave accident in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, caused by an unprecedented in magnitude earthquake in the area of the plant and the tsunami that followed. After painful weeks of fighting of the Japanese authorities to avoid a tragedy of the Chernobyl type because of the availability of indeed reliable protection technology, nonetheless in the year of the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe in the Ukrainian plant Chernobyl, the accident in Japan is a fact. This is what forced, most of all the European Union, to start dealing with the development of mechanisms that could ensure that the 143 nuclear power plants on the Union's territory, will be protected from such disasters.

This is why the EU has managed to develop criteria, on the basis of which it starts, as of June 1st, nuclear stress tests to check European nuclear facilities' resilience. Moreover, the EU has demonstrated ambition to involve the neighbouring countries in the exercise, among which Russia too. This is precisely why my expectation was that at the G8 level there will be not just 10 points of wishful thinking, but specific commitments.

Instead, in the declaration it is written: "We acknowledge that those countries having chosen to rely on nuclear energy already pay due attention to the safe operation of their nuclear installations. We recognise that countries may have different approaches regarding the use and contribution of nuclear energy to their energy mix, including the phasing-in or the phasing-out". This practically means precisely what I picked up for a title of this article - those who have a nuclear power station should take care of it, let's go ahead with the next point on the agenda.

Not less neutrally sounds the text regarding the European efforts for a reassessment of nuclear safety: "We welcome the initiative taken by many countries to carry out comprehensive risk and safety assessments of their existing nuclear installations, and invite all other countries operating nuclear power plants to launch similar assessments as soon as possible". Of course, as the leaders have written, the international cooperation in this area is very important, as well as cooperation between governments, industry, research institutions and regulators, because "this cooperation will strengthen safety culture worldwide and improve transparency". Excuse me, but they shouldn't have bothered writing all this.

The only thing that brings a little bit of hope that the wasted paper for this part of the Deauville declaration is not entirely in vain is the decision to hold an extraordinary meeting of the contracting countries to the Convention for Nuclear Safety in August 2012, during which a full review of the existing measures to be made and maybe to consider changing them. The eight also call on the International Atomic Energy Agency to review its own rules and see whether, given the Fukushima case, they could also be updated.

I will give you, you will give me

More interesting however, is how the issue is being discussed in the lobby of the Deauville summit. For example, during the bilateral summit between American President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan it became clear that the United States will continue to assist Japan in its efforts to recover, but they expect the country to continue to help Washington in pursuing its own agenda.

"In the meantime, we're going to continue to work together on a whole range of international and bilateral issues. Japan has been a huge contributor to our efforts to deal with Afghanistan, to increase development there. They have been a strong supporter and contributor to Pakistan and its efforts to improve government services in that country, development in that country", the American head of state says.

In his turn Japanese Premier Naoto Kan expressed a lengthy gratitude for the assistance the United States sent Japan after the strong earthquake and the tsunami afterwards. The Japanese Premier confirms the expectations thus expressed by the American president, while emphasizing: "In any case, we will first work on the reconstruction of the Japanese economy so that it will be revitalized and enable us to make efforts on these issues in a proactive manner. And we have been receiving a lot of assistance from the United States, and we will continue to ask for your cooperation".

On the issue of nuclear safety also spoke Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. What impresses, though, was that most leaders made only statements after their bilateral meetings or after the end of the forum, while the Russian President gave an entire news conference, responding to various questions, one of which was precisely on nuclear safety.

The Russian head of state expressed satisfaction with the way the issue of nuclear safety was discussed, which is easy to comprehend given the wording of the final declaration on the matter. He added that he had recalled to his G8 colleagues the Russian position, which is that it is necessary to have better systems for fast announcement of nuclear accidents and a higher degree of responsibility of all countries that deal with nuclear energy. In the words of Mr Medvedev, Russia has nothing against holding more serious stress tests and enhancing the requirements for the countries who are yet to begin using atomic energy.

And to the issue whether the interest in nuclear energy is dropping, Medvedev said that although the case in Japan was a tragic experience, "in the same time no one, specifically, cannot mention whatever alternative that is capable of replacing nuclear energy today. Hydrocarbons in general are used even now for energy too. Everyone is murmuring that oil is dear, gas is dear. Green technologies - yes, they are wonderful but for now they are not capable of satisfying fully the states, but of course we would like to use them as much as possible".

The Russian President also called for a sober attitude towards the issue and pointed out that a very careful selection should be made of the places for construction of nuclear power plants, so that a better defence against accidents of any kind is being created - tsunami, earthquakes and others.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy also said that nuclear energy would not die, moreover that his country is dependent on this type of energy to a large extent. Furthermore, Mr Sarkozy had said that a leading principle in nuclear energy should be safety and not cost, adding, quoted by the EurActiv, that nuclear energy had no alternative.

So, for now the problem with Japan will continue to be a starting point for the debates on the issue, but actions will depend entirely on national interests and the nuclear safety technologies being offered.