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Antinuclear disasterclass: A lesson on how to derail Europe’s energy autonomy and undermine her democracies
In the European Union, we find ourselves in a three-fold crisis. Not only are we faced with (1) a climate emergency, but (2) the affordability of energy is rapidly spiralling out of control as (3) Russia withholds energy supplies from several European countries. There can be no doubt: sound, pragmatic actions must follow immediately with the aim of solving all three crises. Everyone is aligned on this.
Yet, if we want to understand the cause of our issues today, we must trace the history of energy policy within the European Union. This is because crises do not emerge spontaneously, they are largely a result of our previous decisions. Unfortunately, the German Energiewende sticks out like a sore thumb here. Prematurely phasing out nuclear energy did nothing to help the climate, energy prices, nor did it reduce our dependence on Russia. Quite the contrary, it had an adverse impact on all three of these aspects as Germany increased its reliance on CO2 intensive gas imports.
This is just one demonstration of how policy we have made in the past is negatively impacting us today; enforcing a nuclear phaseout and replacing it with foreign fossil fuels is simply bad policy. However, while policy can be an issue, it is important to recognize that it can also be a solution. Good policy mitigates crises; it is good policy which will have to lift the Member States of the European Union out of the existing energy crisis.
This is grounds for optimism, but nevertheless, the question of ‘good policy’ prompts reflection. How is good policy created? To work this out, we must start with a simple recognition: Europe is a democratic continent, and our policies are drafted within this democratic framework. In simple terms, the people of Europe have a direct influence over how the energy transition will look. Additionally, we also have a say on how we will seek to prevent future energy crises. Yet, a natural limitation is that few of us have the time to investigate the pros and cons of various energy strategies. Therefore, we rely on (an often simplified) public discourse in order to inform ourselves and turn these opinions into votes.
It goes without saying then that the higher the quality of our public discourse is, the more informed European citizens are, and as a result the quality of policy increases (remember: people vote on policymakers). To avoid future crises, it is of vital interest that we improve the quality of our public discourse. We want European citizens to make the best decisions and for this they require information which is facts-based, transparent, and scientific.
To improve the quality of discourse to the highest possible level, we require independent scientific institutions that act in a way which is non-ideological. In the European Union, we have one such body, the Joint Research Centre (JRC). The JRC employs scientists which carry out research in order to provide scientific advice to support European policymaking. Outside of the European Union, other reputable bodies exist such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These institutions are necessary for our democratic functioning; we can rely on these scientists to inform us in a way which is unbiased.
In most cases, these institutions are respected. Indeed, the fact that the JRC has gone on to claim that nuclear “does no more significant harm” than other low-carbon sources (e.g., renewables) and that the IPCC includes nuclear in some of its pathways to net zero has had an important impact on public perception towards nuclear. Many members of the public trusts these scientists to work scientifically and non-ideologically which, of course, they do. In fact, efforts by independent scientists can even change the minds of traditionally anti-nuclear segments of society. There can be no doubt that it was scientific research which led the Finnish Green Party to declare nuclear as “sustainable energy” in their manifesto, a widely surprising move as the European Green Parties are historically tied to anti-nuclear movements.
Independent scientific institutions must be protected and respected. They have an important function to play in our democracies. However, the unfortunate reality is that the topic of energy, and in particular nuclear energy, is highly polarising. There often exists an ideological opposition to nuclear. Each citizen has the right to form their own opinion, but when anti-nuclear groups categorically reject the verdicts of independent scientific institutions it becomes highly problematic for two reasons. Firstly, some anti-nuclear groups have a large voice in public discourse; anti-nuclear disseminators must take some responsibility for today’s energy crisis. Secondly, anti-nuclear groups who categorically reject the verdicts of independent scientists erode the trust between citizen and scientists; by eroding the trust in independent scientific institutions, you erode the trust in science. This can cause a knock-on effect in areas outside of just energy (e.g., a lack of trust in scientists is also a potential cause for the lack of trust in COVID regulations such as the mask mandate and vaccination programme, thus curtailing our ability to limit the pandemic).
Overall, it is clear that in the future we want to avoid energy related crises. It is us, the European publics, that have a role to play in ensuring that good energy policy is drafted by voting on good policymakers. However, to allow European citizens to perform their role as voters, we require the best possible public discourse and for that the role of independent scientists is indispensable. What must be avoided is to object to science if it does not align with our preconceived notions. Not only can it lead to bad policy overall, but it can also erode the public’s trust in scientists which in turn can have knock-on effects in areas other than energy. Moving forward, we must heed the advice of independent scientists. Nuclear must be part of the solution to the three crises we face today, alongside the rapid deployment of renewables.
Unfortunately, my time at nucleareurope is coming to a close as my final day is quickly approaching. It was a pleasure to work for the nuclear sector and to be able to advocate for low-carbon energy, a topic of critical importance for people of my generation. I wish my colleagues from across the sector all the best in their future endeavours and want to give nucleareurope a special thank you for trusting me with my assigned responsibilities. Best of luck to the future Communication Officer!