35 years on from the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, our director Eva van de Rakt was in conversation with the Austrian Federal Minister for Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology, Leonore Gewessler, and former Member of the European Parliament Rebecca Harms on the role, risks and dangers of nuclear power in Europe.
This interview is part of our dossier "Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster".
Eva van de Rakt: It is now 35 years since the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. What do you remember from the days and weeks following 26 April 1986, Rebecca?
Rebecca Harms: The actual day of the accident was nothing out of the ordinary for us, as we did not find out about the disaster, which took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April, until a couple of days later. That couple of days, whilst radioactivity was spreading from Chernobyl over the whole of Europe, were completely normal. It was lovely weather, everybody was spending time outside. For instance, I did some gardening and picked the first rhubarb of the season. Then when the news came from Sweden that extremely high levels of radioactivity had been measured, but the source was unknown, we all became extremely anxious. I was a member of the board of the Lüchow-Dannenberg citizens’ initiative and we had an excellent network in the Federal Republic of Germany between the anti-nuclear initiatives and scientists working in the area. While the search was underway for the source of these high levels of radiation, Moscow eventually confirmed that this accident had happened. It was really difficult to fully grasp what had actually happened, even for people like me who were long-term critics of nuclear power, for almost 15 years by then in my case. Impossible to get our heads round the fact that the disaster beyond all expectations, the ultimate MCA, maximum credible accident we feared had actually happened and that consequences would affect not just the Soviet Union, but many countries throughout the world.
Leonore, you and I were both children in 1986. What can you remember about that time following the Chernobyl disaster and how did it influence your life in politics?
Leonore Gewessler: If I think back to that time, or somebody asks me what my first political environmental memory was, I immediately think of Chernobyl. As a child, I understood that it was suddenly dangerous to go into the garden, and that there were issues and concerns. I can also remember the aftermath really well. I remember that many of our neighbours in the little village I come from set up fallout shelters with months’ worth of food supplies. These pictures and experiences stay with you. My entire professional life has always been very closely related to the issues of climate protection and the energy transition. The anti-nuclear policy has obviously also played an important part in that. There has been a strong anti-nuclear consensus in Austria for 40 years. Austria suffered more than any other central European country from the nuclear fallout following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. We can still see it now, 35 years later: in Austria, you still get elevated levels of caesium in mushrooms. This just shows that when an accident like this happens, it has unbelievably long-term consequences. Anti-nuclear efforts always have been – and still are – an important part of my political work in Austria and, even more so, in Europe, as this is where a critical debate on the subject is happening right now.
Rebecca, you have not just followed the critical debate on the role of nuclear power for several decades, you have actively shaped it, firstly as an activist and then as a politician in Germany and Europe, always highlighting the dangers and risks of nuclear power. The anti-nuclear movement is central to the history of the German Greens. How have the Chernobyl disaster and its devastating consequences shaped the debate on the future of nuclear power and energy policy?
Rebecca Harms: The accident took place before the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the old Federal Republic, you can safely say that the experience of the Chernobyl disaster and the direct effects of the radioactive fallout as a consequence of a catastrophe taking place 2000 km far away, changed people’s views on nuclear power. Back then, the anti-nuclear movement certainly already had strong opinions and was also visible, but the Chernobyl experience really changed public opinion in the Federal Republic of Germany once and for all. Even so, it was a long time until this opinion filtered down equally broadly into the second political consensus to withdraw from nuclear power. It took until after the Fukushima disaster to form a majority in favour of nuclear phase-out among the parties represented in the German Bundestag. Policies have been introduced in Germany since 2011 on the basis of the second consensus on phasing out nuclear. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that there is consensus on the energy transition and its pace. But it is important to understand that right from the very beginning, the decision to phase out nuclear power was not just connected to rejection and criticism of nuclear power, but also to a deep commitment in favour of renewable energies, energy saving and efficiency. The discussion on the energy transition has gained momentum with the experience of Chernobyl and the first government coalitions involving the Greens. I think that is still important and I often discuss it with climate activists. It’s not just about knowing what you don’t want, but you also need to know what you want to replace it with – that is a recognition and a process that the anti-nuclear movement in Germany has extremely constructively initiated.
Leonore, how has the debate and anti-nuclear movement developed in Austria?
Leonore Gewessler: A nuclear power plant was built in Austria in the 1970s. Then, at the end of that decade, a central conflict that really helped the environmental movement to take off in Austria concerning the commissioning of this nuclear power plant was put to the public. The referendum of 1978, which was binding on the federal government and its policy, was certainly very close, but came out against the commissioning of the plant. This was one of the formative moments in the life of the environmental movement and, further down the line, also for the Green political party in Austria. For me, this just goes to show how incredibly important civil society engagement is, as every single vote, every single person who printed and distributed flyers, made a difference in this decision and contributed to a broad, solid and cross-party consensus against nuclear energy.
Then in 2011, the disaster in Fukushima was a game changer in nuclear policy, principally at European level, and obviously the German decision to phase out nuclear was also a decisive factor in this. We are again seeing an intensive debate at European level on the role of nuclear energy and why nuclear energy will not solve the climate crisis – as Rebecca has already pointed out, only renewables and energy efficiency will do that.
How would you describe the current state of play of the nuclear industry in Europe?
Leonore Gewessler: The debate on nuclear power and the climate crisis is a red herring. It has long been clear that nuclear energy has no future. We have a superannuated powerplant fleet in Europe. 14 out of 27 Member States do not use nuclear energy. Accidents are occurring with greater frequency and even building new NPPs does not guarantee nuclear safety. With these new constructions, whether you look at the Flamanville NPP in France, Olkiluoto in Finland or Mochovce in our neighbouring Slovakia, you’ll see costs exploding and, in some cases, builds taking three times as long as was scheduled. This just goes to show that nuclear energy is not the right solution to the current problem, either from an economic point of view or in terms of the urgency of the situation. The nuclear industry is not in good shape in Europe. It is fighting for its life, trying to get a foot in the door somewhere on the false pretence of being green.
Rebecca Harms: The nuclear industry was gone for a long time after Chernobyl. There were no new builds at all anywhere in the EU for more than two decades. As things stand today, there are just a handful of concrete new build projects underway in the EU and the United Kingdom, for a total of six reactors. These very few projects are causing major headaches, due to their extremely long lead times and spiralling costs. Finland hoped to use Olkiluoto to contribute towards its climate goal for 2020, but it failed. If there was any serious intention of using nuclear energy in connection with new climate protection projects, then multiple new construction projects would have to get underway, but I can see no evidence of this. The alternative, i.e. extending the lifetime of existing plants, as is being pursued offensively in France at the moment, is an aspect we certainly need to talk about. Nuclear power plants do not improve with age at all. It is an extremely risky idea to extend the lives of old nuclear power plants that are in operation now to 60 years. Extending plant lifespans cannot be reconciled with sustainability and safety objectives in the European Union.
Leonore Gewessler: In NPPs close to the border with Austria, there are cases of indefinite lifespan extensions. It is a known fact, and stands to reason, that the risk is greater the longer a power plant is in operation. And we all know from the lessons of history what an increased risk can lead to. We must take action against lifespan extensions, particularly indefinite ones: this is extremely important. For instance, we are consistently calling for cross-border environmental impact assessment, so that neighbouring countries, which are also affected in the event of an accident, can have a say in the matter.
Rebecca Harms: It would be great if all EU countries in which there is a consensus against the use of nuclear power, which would therefore also include Germany, became actively involved on a cross-border basis in procedures such as the approval of lifespan extensions or the construction of new plants. At the moment, no country does this as well as Austria. I also believe that the Greens throughout Europe need to take decisive action in favour of lifespan limits. It would be great to have a shared line on limiting lifetime. Additionally, if a Member State is planning a lifespan extension, the applications, which are obviously for old power plants, should be treated in the same way as a new licence. The state of science and technology in the nuclear industry is no longer what it was 50 or 60 years ago and that is when the power plants that are currently in operation and whose lifetimes we are talking about extending were planned and approved.
As both of you have already said, people in favour of nuclear energy are currently trying to put it on the table as a solution to the climate crisis and base their arguments on its comparatively low greenhouse gas intensity compared to fossil fuels. However, the opposite is the case: in fact, every single euro that is invested in nuclear energy makes the climate crisis worse, as capital is being tied up and not invested in future-proof technologies. How can we bring down emissions from the energy sector as quickly as possible whilst promoting the phase out of nuclear energy within the EU? Where is the leverage, both at national and European level? What opportunities does the European Green Deal have to offer here?
Leonore Gewessler: We have already touched upon this: the solution lies in efficiency and renewable energies, that is the only winning strategy in climate protection. From an economic point of view, it is also worth mentioning that the cost curve is going up for nuclear energy, but falling for renewables. When looking at the whole CO2 footprint cycle, renewables are the better option, too. Time is also a key factor: the climate crisis quite simply presents us with an urgent problem that needs to be dealt with today. We have to invest today in solutions that will take effect immediately and not in 20 years’ time. The best thing Austria can do alongside a consistent anti-nuclear commitment at international and European level is quite simply: to show that it works. 100% renewables and efficiency are possible. Austria, and Germany too, need to show that it is a path that leads to well-being and jobs, in the peripheral regions as well. The European Green Deal has the potential to be a game changer, but only if it is embedded in every regulation, in every directive, in every guideline. And that is why I consider that the taxonomy regulation is really one of the most important decisions currently in the pipeline at European level.
In the framework of this regulation, there is currently a discussion in the EU as to whether nuclear energy can be described as sustainable energy. The taxonomy regulation aims to introduce a common classification system to offer incentives for sustainable investment starting in 2022. A report of the Joint Research Centre now argues that nuclear power deserves a green EU label. What is your opinion of this report and what do you think we can expect in this regard at political level in Europe in the next few months?
Leonore Gewessler: The report, which the Joint Research Centre drew up by request of the European Commission, is a bitter disappointment in my view. It is full of wishful thinking, which the nuclear energy is trying to sell with many age-old arguments. The point of the taxonomy regulation is not to ban technologies or to interfere in the autonomous decision-making of the nation states concerning their energy mix. But we really need to go all out against the attempt to get a European green label for nuclear power. This is the most decisive battle regarding the future of nuclear power in Europe.
Rebecca, some Member States, principally France and the central and eastern European states, are vehemently in favour of a green label for nuclear energy in the framework of the regulation. What do you think are the options to resolve the current conflict?
Rebecca Harms: I obviously very much approve of the approach that Leonore has described for her own work on behalf of the Austrian government. But because I have observed developments in the EU’s debate on nuclear energy for many years now, I’m also aware that it is a very tough debate that cannot easily be won. I think it would be helpful if all countries, federal states and regions that are in favour of phasing out nuclear power got involved in the debate on the taxonomy regulation. This is even more the case wherever Greens participate in government coalitions, for instance in Scandinavia. If the Greens in Finland or Sweden cannot succeed in positioning their governments against the green label for nuclear, I believe that it will be difficult to win this battle. We all know that the decision on the energy mix is not a joint European decision, but lies within the competence of the Member States, within the framework conditions of the European internal market and European climate legislation. This makes it really hard to establish a critical green opinion of nuclear energy for the whole European Union in the framework of the European Green Deal. As regards Germany and France, I would be curious to know how Leonore sees the matter. Certainly, many politicians in Germany are all in favour of natural gas being available as an interim source of energy and used on a large scale. Nord Stream 2 still has the support of every political party in Germany, with the exception of the Greens. My impression in recent weeks has been that in the talks between Germany and France, the current federal government is trying to re-establish gas and that it might therefore turn a blind eye to the subject of nuclear power or even support Macron in his hopes of getting money out of the European Green Deal to extend the lifetime of the NPPs or build new ones.
Leonore Gewessler: The discussion on the taxonomy regulation covers many critical areas and the role of gas is one of these. It is not about interfering in the national energy mix or banning any particular technology. It is about what we classify as sustainable. And if the European Green Deal spells the end of burning fossil fuels, that also means that natural gas should not be part of it. We must quite simply put a stop to all greenwashing. The people of Europe need to be able to trust that if it says Green Deal on it, it also has Green Deal in it. I am therefore absolutely with you on that, Rebecca. It will not be an easy task, because there are many areas of work that exist in parallel. However, there are more and more Member States that have understood the real challenges of our time. There are also more and more Greens in government, a growing number of Green government ministers fighting for this content. These alliances make a difference and are effective. Entering into them, establishing them and maintaining them is something I see as part of my job, particularly on controversial topics. We are facing a health crisis, an economic crisis and unemployment crisis and the focus on the Green Deal and climate protection has never been more important. In fact, it is the only way to get Europe out of crisis. We must therefore also make sure that we do nothing to undermine it. The next elections and formation of government in Germany will therefore undoubtedly be an extremely exciting moment for Europe.
Rebecca Harms: In the international climate debate, from the IPCC and the USA, on the one hand, I see more commitment and dedication to climate protection and the Paris Climate Agreement, but on the other, there is also high praise for the possibilities of nuclear power. I believe that when making the case for a sustainable energy economy based on renewables, savings and efficiency, we also need to be prepared to talk about the challenges. We have to acknowledge the complexity of this transformation. If, for instance, I look at the field of mobility and the enormous pressure on electrification, or calls for fast digitisation and more digitisation, then I can see the following issue: this pressure to make increasing amounts of electrical energy available does not make the debate easier, but it makes the processes by which we have pushed renewables forward in recent years more complex, because everything needs to be faster.
Leonore Gewessler: We need to rebuild our energy system on many levels and in many regards. We therefore just need many people pursuing this with courage, confidence and the necessary clarity. The anti-nuclear consensus has been stable across all political parties in Austria for 40 years, but it still needs to be constantly reshaped. If we are to implement the energy transition, then we need people, movements, civil society and parties at all levels pushing the energy transition and who are brave enough to change things and shape things.
At this point, I would like to discuss the role of civil society. The anti-nuclear movement that has been historically extremely important in Germany, Austria and other EU Member States has become fragmented and is failing to attract enough younger people. How can civil society cooperation be bolstered across Europe and across generations?
Rebecca Harms: It is certainly no great surprise that the movement in Germany has shrunk to a handful of local grassroots groups. In 2011, the decision to phase out nuclear was made with the broadest imaginable political consensus in the Bundestag and the last nuclear power plant will be taken out of the grid next year. This raises the question as to the future purpose of the movement. I can see a clear need in Germany for constructive engagement in the question of nuclear waste. Throughout the world, the search for final disposal sites has not been solved. Resolving this matter after the nuclear phase out was decided upon and implemented means different requirements, other than fighting against nuclear energy and for a sustainable energy transition. I feel that in recent decades, the German anti-nuclear movement has been one of the drivers of the debate in other countries. I think a lot about what the best focus of European cooperation would be at the moment, to support like-minded people in other Member States, for instance in Poland, to prevent the construction of new NPP. But it’s not quite that easy, as the Polish activists have other issues occupying them at the moment. On the one hand, questions around the climate crisis are now at front and centre of the environmental movement, but on the other, current democracy questions in Poland are a much more pressing part of the confrontation and movement than the old disputes of the 1990s.
Leonore Gewessler: I agree with Rebecca, the German anti-nuclear movement has played an enormously important role over the years and decades. For Austrian civil society as well, European responsibility and European cooperation are extremely important. There has been contact for years and decades between Austria and committed initiatives and civil society organisations in neighbouring countries – particularly with citizens’ initiatives fighting final disposal sites for nuclear waste in their communities, new construction projects and expanding lifespans in the border areas. This exchange is very important, as this mutual encouragement is constantly needed. We must also constantly update our arguments, subject them to critical scrutiny, adjust them and rethink them. Our response to the claim that nuclear power can contribute to halting the climate crisis has to be: too expensive, too slow and also fails to create jobs for coal miners in the regions.
Rebecca Harms: So much now depends on the Greens. When we started as a movement, we did not have a green party to champion the cause in the parliament and then in government. But now, we Greens have a relatively strong platform in several countries. We cannot wait for another movement to come along, but we should accept the mission and the challenge. I think that it is quite clear how important the work of Leonore and other Green ministers is in the debate around the European Green Deal and a sustainable energy economy, and that is true not only at the European level, but also the national level. I think it would be very helpful and I would be delighted if the German Greens put the subject on their agenda with a higher priority. We cannot wait for an anti-nuclear movement suddenly to spring up alongside or out of the climate movement.
Leonore Gewessler: For the big fights and also to accompany the arguments as well as possible, we certainly need strong political alliances. We have a very strong alliance between Luxembourg and Austria and we use it to ensure that in decisive moments, at European level as well, we can put up resistance. As Rebecca has already stressed, the alliances must be created at different levels. We also need to continue delivering input and arguments for the debate. In Austria, as well as the important debates at European level on the content, we will be publishing a fact check on the myths and reality of nuclear power in the next few weeks. Proving that we are doing perfectly well without nuclear energy constitutes much of my workload at the moment. In Austria, we have a new renewable energies act, which is currently making its way through the parliamentary process. The aim is 100% renewable electricity in Austria by 2030 and a climate-neutral Austria by 2040. There is plenty to do and I see it as my job and my duty to show that there is another way.
Rebecca Harms: In conclusion, I would like to come back to Chernobyl. It is important to mention that the clean-up work has been ongoing for 35 years and there’s still no end in sight. I last visited the site when the new sarcophagus, the Big Arch, was presented to the international donors five years ago. It now covers Block 4. For at least some of the donors, the aim is to prove that the disaster is controllable because, since Fukushima at least, they can no longer rule out disastrous nuclear accidents. The many unanswered questions of the clean-up work in Chernobyl and Fukushima too must not be covered up by the huge arch in Chernobyl along with the reactor. The experience of uncontrollability from Chernobyl and Fukushima must be part of our debate. We must not be afraid to put our finger on the weak spots.
Leonore and Rebecca, thank you very much for the interview.
The interview took place on 15 April 2021. The original version in German is available on boell.de.
 The red-green federal government initiated the nuclear power phase out and turned it into law in 2000. This decision was undermined by the decision of the black-yellow coalition to extend the lifetime of German nuclear power plants in 2010. After the reactor catastrophe in Fukushima in 2011, the Bundestag decided in a cross-party consensus to phase out Germany's nuclear power by 2022.