Éditoriaux de l'Ifri Édito Énergie

Fukushima and Democracy The Energy Editorial, May 2011

The double disaster of Fukushima, a natural disaster comprising an earthquake and a tsunami and a large-scale industrial nuclear disaster, behoves all countries to consider the lessons which they can draw from it.

Fukushima et la Démocratie

But there are two possible ways to proceed when studying the responses to the future of nuclear power, regardless of what the final decision may be. These two paths illustrate two workings of democracy, that political system which, as Winston Churchill noted with caustic humour, “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

The first path is that of public sentiment, of which every politician is aware. In the face of an understandable public emotion stirred up by the media, which feeds off this emotion, it entails deciding to renounce nuclear power immediately and without consideration. It is the path chosen by the Italian government which had proclaimed for years that Italy was going to begin nuclear power generation. It is the path which Germany is about to adopt, through the will of the Chancellor and the violent reaction of public opinion.

The German case is telling. Firstly, it demonstrates the behaviour of heads of state and government, unsure of their political future, who become restless like flies trapped in a jar, and try to escape by exaggerating a scarecrow. It is also an example of the risk which democracies run when these emotions, ignoring all reason, generate massive votes. There is no need to list the times when in Europe and elsewhere, democratic votes have brought about tragedies. For now, the tendency of the French to incessantly tear each other apart - the same tendency which often drives them to inefficiency - is protecting them from what one might call these public opinion tsunamis.

If in this context, Germany decides to abolish nuclear power between now and 2020, European energy policy will be compromised: the short-term consequences will be an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and a re-examination of the current policy of free circulation of electricity across borders, whatever its origin (however difficult it is to imagine that Germany might supply its industry with biogas and solar). And then why, when the policies of Member States prevent the establishment of an internal electricity market, support the realisation of unwieldy European energy directives?

The second path involves reflecting on the measures which need to be taken nationally and internationally, and thus deciding to maintain a nuclear programme or to phase it out progressively enough to minimise the cost.

For the national plan, the audit should apply to all nuclear installations and examine all measures which can be taken to prepare for storms, floods and any climatic, industrial or terrorist incidents, to ensure that the threats have not been under-estimated.

For the international plan, nuclear plant operators must, in the framework of their organisation and under the aegis of their governments: 1) standardise the method for judging the quality of safety institutions and the level of support to give to countries seeking nuclear power; and 2) submit to internationally recognised and controlled safety information rules, and create an international intervention force capable of coming to the aid of any country afflicted by an incident.

As to an eventual abolition of nuclear power, it cannot be considered without taking into account considerable increases in the price of energy, the abandonment of all progress towards Generation IV which would make nuclear a renewable energy, and the consequences of greater medium-term use of fossil fuels which, for their part, cause deaths and danger associated with their extraction, transformation and transport, over and above their impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The most reasonable path seems to be to allow nuclear power to play its role, while taking as many precautions as possible.


1) In 2007, the average price per kWh in the most expensive EU country was 2.5 times that in the least expensive.


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