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Political clout

May 19, 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.

A cooling tower at a nuclear power plant in Germany
Europe's rethink of of nuclear energy has boosted to the industry's lobbyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

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 something energy-related is discussed in the Commission or Parliament, my team is there in a proactive manner to make sure that the nuclear industry is being heard in that debate," 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.

Rebecca Harms of Germany's Greens
Rebecca Harms from Germany's Greens says the nuclear industry is exploiting climate changeImage: AP

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.

"We have a huge number of contacts, compared to five years ago, who frequently discuss - and naturally that's the biggest value of our work. Without contacts, you can't do any lobbying," Tulonen said.

"From our perspective, the biggest success, where we've played some part, is the realization that nuclear is part of the solution. I think is isreflected in many decisions and reports issued by the Commission and the 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.

A relative of a Chernobyl victim lays flowers near a memorial in Ukraine's capital Kiev
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster swung public opinion in Europe in the 1980s against atomic energyImage: AP

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 minutes of the meetings or the membership, because of these safety concerns. In general it's very hard to find out about the links of the between the 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 pro-nuclear in the past three to four years," Tulonen said. "And we're expecting this to continue, because this is not about dogmatism, it's about pragmatism."

Author: Mirjam Stöckel (sp)

Editor: Kate Bowen