The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 that spread radioactive waste across Europe – some of which remains present 35 years later – triggered a reassessment of the cross-border impacts of nuclear energy. Some power plant projects in border regions were abandoned, while existing reactors were subject to more stringent safety regimes.
Twenty-five years later, the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 prompted countries like Germany to commit to phasing out atomic fuel by 2022. Belgium has also just confirmed that it will be denuclearized by 2025.
But another decade after the tsunami-induced fusion in Japan, countries from China to France and the United States continue to depend on power produced by nuclear reactors, many of which were built in the 1960s and 1970.
France, the country most dependent on nuclear energy in the world which produces 70% of its electricity from atomic energy, confirmed in February 2021 that it would extend the lifespan of its 32 oldest nuclear reactors by 10 years.
Partly because of the growing safety risks associated with aging facilities, some wonder if these countries still have the right to make this decision for themselves.
When France shut down a reactor in February 2020 at its oldest nuclear power plant in Fessenheim, on the German border, due to reported cracks in a reactor cover and other flaws, Germany’s Environment Minister At the time, Svenja Schulze affirmed Germany’s wish to influence nuclear policy across the Rhine.
“We will not relax our efforts to campaign for a nuclear phase-out in our neighboring countries”, she said, adding that the “The exit from nuclear power in Germany is solid as a rock.”
Who has the power to decide on nuclear power?
Although a series of treaties and agreements establish minimum consultation requirements between states, there is no framework to specifically consult with local communities across borders that could be most affected by a nuclear accident, noted Behnam Taebi, co-editor of The ethics of nuclear energy and Professor of Energy and Climate Ethics at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
The 1991 Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context obliges contracting parties to prevent, reduce and control “negative” transboundary impacts; while the 1998 Aarhus Congress applies Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration which states that “environmental issues are best addressed with the participation of all concerned citizens”.
But according to Taebi, these conventions are about the transfer of risk between states, and they say nothing about local communities at the borders of neighboring counties, or whether and how they should be consulted. There is no binding cross-border procedure relating to the development of nuclear energy, and no framework in place which could, for example, force France to communicate and consult with the towns on the other side of the border.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has guidelines focused on national nuclear energy regulators, says Taebi, but “strictly speaking, it’s up to each nation itself to decide how to move forward.”
For Stefan Kirchner, professor and researcher in arctic law at the University of Lapland in Finland, existing international and European treaties facilitate cross-border consultation at a practicable level.
“In principle, cooperation works reasonably well,” he said, especially in Europe where nations generally share multiple borders.
In a statement to DW, the Nuclear Energy Authority of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said world energy authorities, including the World Association of Nuclear Operators, have, during the past decade, created a much higher level of “joint action to make nuclear more secure than ever before.”
“A common level of understanding and practice across the world [has] improved the ability of all countries to ensure high levels of nuclear safety for operating plants, including those planned for long-term operation, ”added the NEA.
But in 2018, referring to Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, the Dutch Safety Board – which independently investigates the causes of incidents or accidents – concluded that “cross-border cooperation has been partly arranged on paper, but it probably won’t go smoothly. if a nuclear accident did happen. ”
For ten years, Austria has opposed the Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic which opened in 2000 near its border, with some politicians threatening block the entry of the Czech Republic into the EU until the latter agrees to strengthen security measures.
While the European Commission has stepped in to help resolve this conflict, Kirchner notes that under current agreements, neighboring countries do not have the power to veto unwanted developments.
The limits of cross-border decision-making
According to Behnam Taebi, cross-border consultation is too often limited to national governments because states, rather than communities, are parties to existing conventions.
“From an ethical point of view, I am careful not to involve local communities in decision making,” he said. “The least we can do is engage with other authorities across the border, but also with communities, in terms of emergency response. This is going to be crucial if something goes wrong. “
Communities that oppose nuclear power plants at their borders often have to lobby regulators and policymakers or go to EU courts.
In 2016, communities in Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium sent a petition to the European Parliament expressing its concern about the safety of the Tihange 2 nuclear power plant near Liège after the discovery of cracks in the reactors.
The petitioners were concerned “that only the country concerned decides to shut down a nuclear power plant”. But the EU disagreed that a shutdown was warranted.
A subsequent case before the European Court of Justice brought by activists also failed to close the Belgian power plants that include the Doel reactor near Antwerp.
Safety concerns at the Tihange nuclear power plant in Belgium fueled cross-border demands for closure
Should France unilaterally extend an aging nuclear fleet?
The petition against Belgian factories attracted a final answer of the European Commission on the issue of national jurisdiction in relation to cross-border jurisdiction
“The decision to operate a nuclear power plant rests with the Member State, which is also responsible for ensuring its operational safety”, wrote the EC in 2018.
This decision is consistent with France’s unilateral decision to extend the life of its aging nuclear infrastructure; and President Emmanuel Macron’s recent announcement that France will invest in small “revolutionary” modular reactors as part of its commitment to reduce CO2 emissions.
Nuclear power generation in France in 2020 actually fell to its lowest level since 1995. The share of nuclear power in France’s electricity mix that year was also the lowest since 1985, according to the report. State of the World Nuclear Industry Report 2021. The same report showed that renewables are rapidly overtaking nuclear power, dropping nuclear’s share of global gross electricity from more than 17 to around 10 percent over the past 25 years.
In contrast, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Energy Agency have reported that the extension or “long-term operation” of aging nuclear fleets is a cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Continuing to operate existing nuclear power plants is one of the most profitable investment opportunities for low-carbon generation in many regions,” NEA told DW in a statement.
But while Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Sholz has said he respects France’s right to make nuclear a key part of its climate ambition, his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said Germany will oppose to pressure from France for nuclear energy to be sanctioned as a “green investment” by the European Commission. The German government remains divided over the draft EU energy proposal released on New Year’s Eve.
On the other border of Germany to the east, Poland approved the construction of six reactors at two sites in early 2021, including on the Baltic Sea just 150 kilometers from Germany.
“There is a 20% chance that Germany will be affected by an accident at the planned nuclear power plant,” Bundestag Environment Committee chairwoman Ursula Kotting-Uhl told DW in May. A “worst case scenario” would see 1.8 million Germans exposed to radiation, including in the capital, Berlin.
Poland insists that factories will be safe. Despite German protests, few seem willing or able to interfere in the “energy sovereignty” of national states.
And as Stefan Kirchner notes, the lack of veto power for neighboring states means that historic cooperation based on existing treaties and conventions will be the most likely path.
Edited by: Tamsin Walker