Word from the President

From adversity to opportunity

There are no prizes for guessing what subject has been dominating the international energy policy scene during the first few weeks of 2009….a certain gas supply dispute close to the EU’s eastern border that quickly escalated into a pan-European crisis. Many of the world’s leading politicians and energy experts were forced to rearrange their agendas. Diplomats went into overdrive in an attempt to resolve the crisis as soon as possible, especially as a particularly harsh winter in some parts of Europe made a quick resolution absolutely essential. The press was quick to appreciate the relevance and newsworthiness of the crisis, filling every available column space with interviews, special reports and editorials focusing on the wider impacts of this latest energy spat between Russia and the Ukraine. Coverage of the issue continues without respite, even though Russia recently turned the gas tap on again.

I have been asked on several occasions what lessons I think can be learned from the current gas crisis and what impact it might have upon the future direction and pace of EU nuclear energy policy. So, I would like to share my views on the subject with ENS NEWS readers.

The first thing that springs to mind for me is a very strong feeling of déjà vu. Some years ago, the sadly-missed former EU Energy Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, warned in her Energy Green Paper of the urgent need for greater energy independence and diversity to avoid the EU finding itself in a situation where a sudden shortfall in vital gas or oil imports could inflict considerable economic damage on the Community and adversely effect the quality of life of EU citizens. Her words seem prophetic now – even more so when you bear in mind that a similar Russia-Ukraine gas crisis had already occurred in 2007. So, her words fall on deaf ears.

The most disappointing thing of all is that nothing much appears to have been done to prevent ourselves from falling regularly victim to energy crises engineered from outside our borders. Sadly, a lack of political vision and will appears to have prevented many EU countries from equipping themselves effectively to resist future energy crises. Sadly, we have not learned the lessons of the past. And we will continue to remain hostages to fortune until we learn how to ensure that the nightmare does not return to haunt us. If we don’t take action now, disputes like those involving Russia and Ukraine are likely to become the norm rather than the exception.

But there is no point in harming on about missed opportunities. We must simply ensure that we don’t miss the latest opportunity that has been presented to us. The first thing that must be done is to look beyond the regional political conflicts and short-term political expediency that characterise the current gas crisis and look at things within a longer-term, more holistic context. The nuclear science community has long preached in favour of developing greater self-reliance upon secure domestic sources of base-load energy. We urgently need a common European energy policy that promotes greater use of secure, reliable, cost competitive and low-carbon energy sources, like nuclear energy and renewables. Such a policy will help us to develop our domestic energy infrastructure and better equip us to resist future energy supply crises.

Secondly, another thing that recent energy supply crises have taught us is that the volatility of gas and oil prices leads inevitably to an unstable situation, where confrontation fuelled by the gas and oil cartels is likely to flair up at any moment. The cartels cannot be allowed to hold us to ransom. We cannot afford to have more energy supply crises again in the future. The problem is getting politicians to see beyond short-term goals and embrace a long-term common energy policy that encourages that increased energy diversity and independence that is so essential. Hopefully, the true scale of the gas crisis and the realisation of its long-term repercussions should have forced politicians’ hands. It’s time for words to be translated into concerted action, now.

To a large extent, the gathering momentum in favour of nuclear energy in recent times has been generated by its impressive climate change credentials. Naturally, at a time when forging Europe’s low-carbon economy is uppermost in many politicians’ minds, the contribution that nuclear makes to fighting climate change is a telling one. And yet, if there is one thing that the current crisis has taught us – and hopefully politicians too – is that security of supply is every bit as important to quality of life and health and welfare as combating climate change. Now the issue of security of supply has gained similar visibility to that of global warming, and that can only be good for nuclear energy. The future of nuclear power has been brought even more into the public domain and its vital contribution to security of supply has been brought into sharper focus. This should positively impact upon public opinion, which has been steadily evolving in favour of nuclear energy.

I strongly believe that the only way to ensure that the EU is able to guarantee the secure and independent energy supplies it so craves, while at the same time meeting its climate change obligations, is to promote the greater use of nuclear energy. This should initially be done is by extending the lifetime of existing nuclear power plants. We need to continue developing the cutting edge reactor technology and research that will underpin the new generation of power plants that will meet rising demand for electricity. We also need to push ahead with the ambitious new-build programmes currently under way across Europe. The UK, Slovakia, France, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Finland and Poland are either already building new plants or planning to do so in the near future. Italy is actively reconsidering its current moratorium and looking to re-launch its stagnant domestic nuclear sector. Only by investing in the new power plants of tomorrow will Europe be better able to meet its own energy needs in the event of another temporary interruption in energy supplies. So, some politicians have taken, or are taking, the right decisions and in the future their policy should be vindicated. But many still fail to see the writing on the wall.

Everyone in the nuclear community, from those carrying out the cutting edge research to those in industry involved in ambitious new build projects and in shaping a common energy policy for Europe, needs to seize the opportunity that the current gas crisis has provided. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that Europe has an independent and diverse energy portfolio that will provide some resistance to future energy shortages. We can do this by continuing to win the security of supply and climate change argument and by showing that excellent research holds the key to meeting our future energy needs. We must see the current crisis as an opportunity - a springboard for achieving our goals. But, above all, it is an opportunity that we simply cannot afford to miss. Failure is not an option. European consumers would never forgive us.


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