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Nuclear Giants Take a Huge Hit

Energy
Nuclear Giants Take a Huge Hit

The European nuclear industry, led by France, seems to be in terminal decline as a result of the cancellation of a new Finnish reactor, technical faults in stations already under construction and severe financial problems.

A public protest in France against building new nuclear power stations.

Photo credit: Frédéric Bisson / Flickr

The French government owns 85 percent of both of the country’s two premier nuclear companies—Areva, which designs the reactors, and Électricité de France (EDF), which builds and manages them. Now it is amalgamating the two giants in a bid to rescue the industry.

Even if the vast financial losses involved in building new nuclear stations can be stemmed, there is still a big question mark over whether either company can win any new orders.

Their flagship project, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), billed as the most powerful reactor in the world, has two prototypes under construction—one in Finland and the second in France. Both of the 1,650 megawatt reactors are years late and billions of  Euros over budget, with no sign of either being completed.

Enthusiastic cheerleader

The Finnish government, once the most enthusiastic nuclear cheerleader in Europe, has lost patience with Areva, and the Finnish electricity company TVO has scrapped plans to build a second EPR in Finland.

This is because the first one, under construction at Olkiluoto since 2005, and which was supposed to be finished by 2009, is not expected to be producing electricity until 2018—and even that may yet prove optimistic. It was intended  to be the first of a “worldwide fleet."

The second EPR under construction, at Flamanville in France, is also seriously delayed, and possibly in even deeper trouble because of concerns about the quality of steel in the pressure vessel.

The components, forged in France by Areva, were already in place in the half-built reactor before questions over the carbon content of the vessel and its safety were raised and work was halted.

The knock-on effect of the inquiry into this safety glitch is that the Flamanville reactor will be delayed again. In a worst-case scenario, it would have to be part-dismantled or scrapped altogether.

This has also raised queries over the French company’s biggest potential export market, China. Two EPRs are being built in China, but checks are being made there too because these reactors may also have excess carbon in the steel. The suspect parts were made in France in the same forge as the Flamanville pressure vessel.

These delays and cancellations have placed a severe strain on Areva’s finances. In 2014, on revenues of €8.3 billion ($9.2 billion), it lost €4.8 billion. Hence, the French government’s move to amalgamate the two companies to try to make one viable unit. In fact, EDF will take over Areva, which has not sold a new reactor since 2007.

Serious blow

This is a serious blow to the pride of a country that is seen as the world leader in nuclear energy, with 75 percent of its electricity coming from 58 reactors.

The French government is keen to rescue the industry, but had already decided against ordering any more reactors after the fiasco in building Flamanville, which was years late and over budget even before the latest hiccup.

All this leaves the UK as the last country in the world anxious to buy a French reactor. With a new Conservative government in power for less than a month, its energy policy is already in disarray.

Plans to build four 1,650 megawatt EPRs in Britain to produce 14 percent of the country’s electricity—announced before this month’s general election—look ever more unlikely.

Even with the first two at Hinkley Point in the west of England—where site preparations have been made, and a final agreement was expected with EDF this summer—nothing is likely to happen for months. The most likely course must now be cancellation.

Plans have been put on hold while EDF and Areva sort out the problems at Flamanville, and then try to find a way of financing the project. Four hundred workers on the Hinkley Point project have already been laid off.

Unfair state aid

The new British government is already facing legal challenges from Austria and Luxembourg and from various renewable energy groups for unfair state aid for this nuclear project.

Even if ministers see these threats off, it seems unlikely that anyone will commit to building new EPRs in the UK until at least one of the four reactors under construction in China, Finland and France is actually shown to work.

There is no guarantee that will happen in the next three years, so the chances of Britain getting any new nuclear power stations before 2030 are close to zero.

Currently, the UK is closing coal-fired stations to comply with European Union directives to combat climate change, but it has not developed renewables as fast as Germany and other European neighbors—claiming that new nuclear build would fill the gap.

It now looks as though the government will urgently need to rethink its energy policy.

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The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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