Written by Clare Ferguson,
Thirty years ago, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster released radioactive material over much of Europe. Following the accident, some 600 000 people took part in the containment operations and around 350 000 people were displaced.
Accidents like Chernobyl, and the more recent disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, have resulted in an increasingly nuclear risk-averse public. Many countries are phasing out nuclear power production altogether. In the EU, production fell 13 % from 2004 to 2014, and will fall further as countries like Germany decommission plants without replacing them. Conversely, as a share of energy production worldwide, however, the rising number of nuclear power stations in China may well boost global nuclear output by some 80 % by 2040.
Another fear is the misuse of nuclear material by terrorist groups. One way in which the EU tries to contain proliferation of nuclear material is through export controls of what are known as ‘dual-use items’ exports which may have a legitimate end-use, but which may be converted to deadly weapons, for instance to manufacture nuclear weapons or explosive devices. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) runs an incident and trafficking database, to which it adds over 150 reports of trafficking of radiological and nuclear materials annually.
Leading academics point to the political fallout from the Chernobyl disaster and its legacy on society and on nuclear safety in post-Soviet Russia and Belarus, where a new nuclear power plant is under construction. Although Chernobyl fallout contaminated almost one quarter of Belarussian territory, domestic opposition to the new plant at Ostrovets is unlikely, due partly to the country’s dependence on cheap energy from Russia, as well as to the authoritarian regime. The plant’s location, upriver and only 50 km from the Lithuanian border, however, raises considerable security concerns for Lithuanians, particularly regarding the safety of their drinking water. The EU is also dependent on energy supplies from Russia, including nuclear fuel, and this aspect of EU-Russia relations is pushing the EU to seek greater energy security and independence from what the European Parliament has termed an ‘unreliable partner’.