Back in 2011, I was in Rimini, Italy, and watched an anti-nuclear protest march down the street, beating drums. This was just a few months after the Fukushima nuclear accident, and the media had people in hysterics over the alleged dangers of nuclear power. Days later, Italian voters by a staggering 94% majority approved a referendum banning construction of new nuclear plants. In Germany, hysteria over Fukushima caused the government to announce that all nuclear plants would be shut down by 2022, and by now about half have already been shuttered. The move away from nuclear power has been bad for both the environment and the economy.
Now comes news that France is also turning away from nuclear. The just-elected French president, Emanuel Macron, announced that his energy minister will be Nicolas Hulot, a radical environmentalist. Following the announcement, shares in EDF, the big French nuclear company, fell seven percent overnight.
Hulot’s opposition to nuclear comes out of an emerging trend of thinking in France—and in Europe more generally—that holds that nuclear power ought to be phased out as soon as possible and replaced by renewables. Germany, motivated by an irrational fear of the energy source following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, is leading this charge to its own detriment. Berlin hasn’t been able to replace its shuttered nuclear plants with wind and solar, but has instead been forced to increase its reliance on lignite coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels around. As a result, the country’s emissions have risen, an entirely predictable consequence of snubbing the only source (other than hydropower) of zero-emissions baseload power.
Germany’s experience hasn’t been enough to phase France’s greens, though, and Hulot’s new position of leadership suggests that Paris is preparing to follow in Berlin’s footsteps. That would be a grave error, though, especially during a time in which Europe is placing such a heavy emphasis on emissions reductions. EDF itself has pointed out that environmentalist plans to replace France’s nuclear fleet with 100 percent renewables by 2050 are “not based on technological realities.”
A turn against nuclear in France is particularly shocking, because France has long been one of the most pro-nuclear countries in the world. Currently, France gets more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear.
Europe has apparently succumbed to an irrational fear of nuclear power. And it is indeed irrational, because nuclear is just about the safest form of energy. Even at Fukushima, where the tsunami caused three reactors to melt down, the number of deaths attributable to the incident currently stands at ZERO. Two people were hospitalized.
Of course, it is possible that a small number of people in the future might die from cancer. But nobody really knows how many, since the radiation doses were very small, and the effects of small doses are not well understood. A small dose of radiation is kind of like consuming diet Coke; safe in the short-run, but in the long-run, nobody has any idea what the health effects might be.
The so-called ‘linear no-threshold’ model tends to vastly exaggerate the impact of small radiation doses. The model’s linear extrapolation is analogous to assuming that if 70 percent of people are killed by falling 20 feet, then 7 percent would be killed by falling 2 feet. In any event, this model predicts 130 deaths as a result of Fukushima. So 130 deaths is most likely a gross exaggeration, with the real figure much closer to zero, and perhaps literally zero.
By comparison, more people are killed every year in coal mining accidents than have ever been killed by nuclear power. According to one estimate, in just one year (2013) in China, 1,049 coal miners were killed in accidents. Several major accidents that each take the lives of dozens of miners occur every year in China. For instance, last December, an explosion at a coal mine in Inner Mongolia claimed 32 lives. That figure might well eclipse the death toll from Fukushima.
Europeans take to the streets over non-existent nuclear deaths, but very real coal deaths get no attention. And using less nuclear means using more coal, which will cause more deaths.
The average European spends nearly a decade and a half in school. The ostensible purpose of schooling is to educate people for citizenship. Part of that education includes several years of science. Yet the typical European’s view of nuclear power is irrational fear based in ignorance; it is a view indistinguishable from that of an illiterate goat herder. If this sort of abject ignorance is the best the schools can do, then they deserve to be shut down rather than the nuclear plants.