Anyone who watches or reads the news has heard of the disaster in Japan. Following one of the worst earthquakes in history and the tsunami which resulted from it, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has become the center of attention. The systems of the plant and its nuclear reactors have malfunctioned and a nuclear disaster is said to be immanent. This has raised questions about the safety of nuclear power plants in Europe and has resulted in securitization of the topic.
Security is defined by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies as “the pursuit of freedom from threat and the ability of states and societies to maintain their independent identity and their functional integrity against forces of change which they see as hostile”. The main action to securitize an issue is the ‘presentation’ or ‘securitizing move’, which usually takes the form of rhetoric (e.g. a speech, a report, legislation etc.).
When it comes to energy, there are two security sectors worth considering. First, economic security is defined as the “access to the resources, finance and markets necessary to sustain acceptable levels of welfare and state power”. The securitization of economics is mainly derived from the concept of investment risk and choices which have to be made in this respect. For example, the possibility that economic dependencies within the global market (especially oil) will be exploited for political ends or questions of security of supply are important to take into account.
Second, environmental security is defined as “the maintenance of the local and the planetary biosphere as the essential support system on which all other human enterprises depend”. The main securitizing actors here are scientists, who use specialized reports to bring environmental threats to the public and to the political scene. The fact that the energy sector is often identified as one of the main causes of environmental threats has led to the spillover of environmental securitization into securitization of energy. In this way, the environmental and energy sectors have been inseparably linked through the urgent need for action to prevent an existentially threatening environmental disaster.
Taking these two security sectors into account, there are three indicators used to define the level of securitization: 1) government policy; 2) NGO activity; and 3) public opinion. The first indicator is important because a consistent energy policy is essential to a government’s political stability. In any democratic system, if the ruling elite does not provide its people with electrical power, heating and fuel at acceptable prices, it will lose favor with voters. The second indicator – NGO activity – is also important since lobby groups or media organizations have a large sway over the perception of certain objects. If something is presented as a threat in the media, it inevitably becomes securitized. The last indicator, and perhaps the most important one, is the opinion of the public on an issue. If the population of a state deem a certain topic to be essential to their identity or national security, a securitization move will necessarily result.
The securitization of energy has been a gradual process and has caused an increase in the perceived importance of the issue and the urgent necessity for action. The securitization of nuclear power, however, has been on the agenda for many years. For example, word-wide organization called Greenpeace was created in the 1970’s with a clear mission to stop the development of nuclear power. Events such as the partial reactor meltdown on Three Mile Island in the USA, and the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, further fueled the anti-nuclear movement.
At the moment, Greenpeace is one the organizations leading the securitization of nuclear power because of the emergency in Japan. Nuclear power plants all over the world are now being questioned over their safety and security. The media’s role in this is minimal, since they report the facts coming from Japan, but try to remain objective. However, there is no question that nuclear power has been securitized to the highest level – it has become a question of national security and is being judged as a threat to the economic and environmental security of Europe.
The announcement from March 15 2011 that the European Union has agreed to run ‘stress-tests’ on its nuclear installations is a direct result of this securitization.These tests will include an assessment of the risks that earthquakes, tsunamis, terror attacks and power cuts could pose to European nuclear plants. How this will be done remains a mystery, yet it is certain that nuclear power plants will have to adopt more stringent safety and security procedures and systems.
Also, the fact that Germany decided to temporarily shut down the nuclear power plants operational since before 1980, shows how serious governments are taking the crisis in Japan. Environmentalists all over the world are hailing this as a major breakthrough for ridding the Earth of nuclear waste. However, the securitization effect also has an economic dimension which is not being considered – one has to watch out how much electricity prices will rise due to the discontinuation of such a large and cheap source of energy.
The securitization of nuclear power to such an extent can lead to two conclusions: 1) nuclear power plants are deemed too great an environmental risk and a plan is adopted for their decommissioning; or 2) nuclear power plants are judged to be a necessary risk for achievement of economic stability. Either way, both the environmental and economic aspects have to be taken into account. Weighing the facts at hand is the difficult side.
In the end, there are two clear-cut facts that have to be remembered before a decision is taken. First, the nuclear incident in Japan is a direct result of an environmental disaster. Once we start going down this road (initiating stress tests for nuclear installations), we might as well conduct such tests on gas-fired power plants, as well as office buildings and schools. When building any structure, the threat of environmental disasters has to be taken into account – earthquakes, hurricanes, risk of floods etc. Nuclear incidents can cause deaths and environmental damage just like a gas explosion or a hurricane, but on different scales. One has to be careful how far securitization can go.
Second, nuclear power remains a key element in our energy-generation system. The Japanese recognized this, and that is why they have 53 nuclear reactors, generating 15% of their electricity. In the EU’s plan for 80% reduction of emissions by 2050, nuclear power still plays a role because of the lack of potential to achieve this target solely through renewable energy technology. In the World Energy Outlook report of the International Energy Agency, nuclear power will have to contribute 10% of electricity-generation in 2030. Realistically, there is no way to abolish atomic energy in the near future.
N.B. I would like to state a personal opinion on the matter. Securitization of nuclear power has led to several misunderstandings in Europe:
- The radiation that is reportedly leaking from the power plant in Japan can reach Europe. This is simply ridiculous due to wind direction, the distance between Japan and Europe, and the rate at which radiation dissolves in the atmosphere. The only people benefiting from this are pharmaceutical companies who produce iodine, because the panic created by these beliefs has caused people to start consuming this substance which protects the body from radiation. Also, an iodine overdose can cause a burning sensation in the mouth, stomach and throat, abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, weak pulse, diarrhea and coma.
- Nuclear power plants are bad for the environment. Yes – nuclear power plants can cause environmental damage. Waste requires careful handling and storage. At the same time, there have only been three recorded nuclear power plant incidents in history (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now – Japan). Also, please remember that all power plants are harmful to the environment in one way or another (e.g. fossil fuels pollute the air; wind-generators kill birds).
- If environmentalists are ready to pay extremely high electricity bills in order to phase out nuclear power completely, most people are not.
My final remark is that sacrifices are always required for progress to be made. Whether we have to sacrifice nuclear power for the avoidance of a potential disaster, or we have to live with it in order to have cheap electricity, is a matter of weighing the options. Just make sure you have all the facts before passing judgment.