The six-month consultation period on the EU's Green Paper on a European Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy comes to an end on September 24. But no matter what the accumulated public feedback reveals, recent news headlines underline some of the key trends shaping the future policy of the EU.
First, Russia has turned to be a much more agile, sophisticated and cunning player than the EU was ever prepared to acknowledge. It expanded its outreach into countries of high geopolitical importance to the EU. Algeria, Libya, Turkmenistan—just a few months ago, these were hardly common travel destinations for EU diplomats. By the time Europeans woke up to their geopolitical importance, Russians had already established strong business and government ties there. Since then Brussels has discovered how dependant it is upon Russia's energy benevolence.
Second, this summer's heat has shown the vulnerability of alternative energy sources. Apparently, hydroelectric plants no longer provide a stable source of energy, as droughts dry up the reservoirs and high temperatures boost the use of air conditioning.
Third, there has been a tremendous amount of bottom-up activity in the EU, with new members searching for ways to reduce their reliance on Russian energy rather than relying on Brussels to find a suitable solution. For example, Warsaw would let the United States station an anti-missile defense system on its territory in exchange for American help in pushing through a project that can bring gas from Central Asia to Europe bypassing Russia...
In another mutually beneficial exchange, Polish and Lithuanian leaders are embarking on a project that would help to hook up the electrical grids of both countries (with Polish, Czech, and Swedish companies being invited to work on a new nuclear power project in Lithuania). This follows an overall trend of bringing in the Baltic electrical grids into the Scandinavian net, thus moving closer to a single European market in energy and ensuring security of supply.
Given all of these, it is not surprising that EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs has stepped up efforts to promote nuclear power as a viable option for generating electricity.
Two key arguments have emerged to support the revival of nuclear power. The first one holds that as nuclear power is the most Kyoto-friendly source of energy, its total share in energy production should grow and eventually replace carbon-intensive coal and natural gas. This argument has a lot of supporters in Western Europe who want to promote clean energy without placing any unnecessary burdens on the economy (i.e. to avoid Kyoto-style targets).
The second argument holds that nuclear energy can help lessen the EU's dependence on natural gas, and by extension, Russia. Generating nuclear power requires uranium, but most of its reserves are concentrated in friendly places like Australia and Canada and this would not create the same inflexibility as importing gas or oil from Russia or the Middle East. Obviously, this argument carries a lot of weight in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
A third argument also might also be in the offing - one made by big business. As the EU reforms its currently ineffective Emissions Trading Scheme, the companies will seek new ways to produce energy, with nuclear power being their most likely choice. So, once the EU finds a way to impose significant emissions-driven costs on big businesses, they would line up to revive nuclear power.
Thus, a somewhat intriguing coalition is on the horizon: free-market environmentalists from Western Europe, Russophobe Eastern Europeans, and cost-saving corporations faced with growing bills for carbon emissions. Looking back into the relationship between nuclear power and public opinion, it might indeed take a coalition of this size and composition to push through the necessary policy change to make Europe nuclear-friendly again.
The sooner the European Commission and the national governments make a firm commitment to this nuclear revival, the more chances they have to meet the Kyoto targets, help jump-start their economies, and preserve some dignity in their relationship with Russia.
Investing in the development of uranium mines, creating special investment vehicles to overcome the prohibitive capital costs surrounding nuclear construction, and researching the best ways for nuclear waste management are all complicated tasks, which the Europeans have been neglecting for decades. It might take another cold Russian winter of 2007 to convince them to move things just a little bit quicker...
The author is a TCS Daily contributing writer. He blogs at www.sharpandsound.com.