Nuclear lobby buoyant as Europe warms up to atomic energy

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The revival of atomic energy in Europe and a new nuclear-friendly mood in both the EU Commission and the EU Parliament has given the industry's powerful lobby in Brussels a
shot in the arm.

From Sami Tulonen's office in Brussels, it's just a five-minute walk to the EU Parliament and three minutes on foot to the European Commission.

It's the perfect strategic location -- a stone's throw from the corridors of power -- for the chief lobbyist of Foratom, the umbrella organization of the European nuclear industry.

"When anything that has to do with energy is being discussed in the EU Parliament or the Commission, my team is there to ensure that the nuclear industry makes its voice heard," said Tulonen.

EU warms up to nuclear energy

The nuclear lobby has certainly been banging the drum in recent years and with increasing success.

At the end of 2005, a slew of EU parliamentarians signed a "Statement on Climate Change and Nuclear Energy" initiated by Foratom. They included conservative German MPs Herbert Reul and Daniel Caspary.

"Nuclear energy should play an increasingly key role in the worldwide fight against climate change and remain a pillar of EU energy and environment policy," the paper said. "We're firmly convinced that the increased use of nuclear energy -- the biggest single component in the fight against climate change -- is essential."

Since then, the EU Parliament has reaffirmed its nuclear-friendly stance in a number of votes. Most recently in February, MPs pushed for nuclear energy to continue to be part of the energy portfolio in Europe. In a report, they urged the EU Commission to create a "concrete timetable for investments in nuclear energy."

The rhetoric dovetails with what is often referred to as a "nuclear renaissance" in Europe. Many member states, including France, Italy, Britain, Sweden and a few Eastern European countries, are going ahead with plans for the construction of new nuclear plants.

The nuclear industry has stepped up efforts to advertize the potentially positive effects of atomic energy in cutting carbon emissions and limiting global warming as well as reducing Europe's energy dependency

Critics have condemned the rethink on nuclear power, pointing out that many EU parliamentarians are letting themselves be fooled by the nuclear lobby's "climate" arguments.

"If you wanted to be really cynical you could say that the nuclear industry had to invent the whole climate discussion in order to see a chance for themselves," said Rebecca Harms, an MP from Germany's Green party.

"I know of no other case in which a huge industry tries so hard to benefit from a huge global problem as the nuclear industry does in the case of climate change."

Tide turns in Europe

Despite the criticism, figures show that proponents of nuclear energy are gaining in strength. A poll by the EU Commission said that in 2008, almost 45 percent of Europeans said they were in favor of nuclear energy -- a rise of seven percent compared to three years ago.

The European Commission too has embraced atomic energy, making it an official part of the bloc's climate-change policy and describing it as a key component of its energy portfolio for the future.

It's a far cry from the nuclear-wary mood that prevailed in Europe in the wake of the Chernobyl incident in 1986, the world's worst nuclear disaster. At the time, safety fears and concerns over radioactive waste prompted many EU nations to announce plans to phase out nuclear power.

The new pro-nuclear mood in Brussels is also reflected in the bulging contact lists of the atomic lobby, Tulonen said.

"Compared to five years ago, we now have a huge number of contacts who talk with us regularly -- and naturally that's the biggest reward for us. Without contacts, you can't do any lobbying," Tulonen said.

"From our perspective, our biggest success is that we helped create awareness that nuclear energy is a part of the solution to tackling climate change. I think that's reflected in the many decisions and positions taken by the EU Commission and EU Parliament."

Critics deplore lack of transparency

But for some, the nuclear lobby's methods of networking with policy makers remain foggy.

That was illustrated in the case of former Euro MP Rolf Linkohr who worked as a special consultant for EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs after the end of his parliamentary term.

In 2007, Linkohr was fired after it emerged he had been on the board of nuclear energy giant EnBW and had been consulting energy companies with a private firm during his work for the Commission.

For non-governmental organizations such as the Corporate Europe Observatory CEO, Linkohr's case was proof of the murky links between politics and the influential nuclear lobby.

CEO says the nuclear lobby is marked by a persisting lack of transparency. The EU Commission is advised by various expert groups and some of them are from the nuclear sector, Yorgos Vassalos of CEO said.

"Most of the time we have no access to the protocols of the meetings and to the list of participants. It's generally very difficult to find out anything about the ties between decision-makers and the nuclear lobby," Vassalos said.

Powerful and flush with cash

What is known for a fact is that the nuclear lobby in Brussels is -- much like the nuclear industry -- one of the most influential and well-funded groups. According to Foratom's Web site, the group spent 1.6 million euros ($2.2 million) on lobbying the various arms of the EU in 2007.

Tulonen is convinced that nuclear energy has a bright future in Europe and that his lobbying work will bear fruit regardless of who wins the European elections next month.

"The European Parliament and the European Commission have become quite nuclear-friendly in the past three to four years," Tulonen said. "And we're counting on it staying that way -- this isn't about dogmas but about pragmatism."

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