In Eastern Europe, a Nuclear Answer to Energy Dependence

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

From the Baltic to Bulgaria, governments in Eastern Europe are increasingly looking toward a revival of nuclear power generation to meet growing energy demand.

The renewed interest in nuclear energy in a region that has been under intense pressure from the European Union to close unsafe older- generation plants coincides with a lively debate in several West European countries, in which governments seek cleaner energy options to combat climate change.

Even in Germany, where public opinion has traditionally opposed nuclear energy, the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is considering reversing a decision to phase out the country's nuclear plants.

For Eastern Europe, a nuclear revival offers a way to lessen dependency on Russian natural gas and oil. Despite memories of the devastating accident at the Soviet-built reactor at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, governments in Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia are renovating old nuclear plants or building new ones.

"There is a very strong interest and tangible progress in plans to build new power plants in the countries of Eastern Europe," said Vince Novak, director of the nuclear safety department at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, which was established in the early 1990s to help Eastern and Central Europe make the transition to a market economy.

Since the creation of the bank, a priority for its nuclear energy experts has been to ensure that nuclear plants in the region meet strict safety standards.

"We are focused on one of the prerequisites for a nuclear renaissance: safety," Novak said in an interview. "We work for nuclear safety, decommissioning of first-generation Soviet reactors, safe and secure management of nuclear waste and spent fuel. These are the requisites."

But the idea of using nuclear power to improve energy security is earning governments sharp criticism from advocates of renewable energy sources. Critics accuse the governments of resorting to the easy option of nuclear power rather than taking difficult decisions to encourage energy efficiency, cut waste and foster renewable energy sources.

"The nuclear lobby is very strong in our country," said Aleksandras Paulauskas, executive director of the independent Lithuanian Wind Energy Association, "but also in other countries in the region."

"Look at where we are located. We could easily produce reliable amounts of energy by using the wind from the Baltic Sea. But there is no political will to consider this option."

Five offshore wind farm projects were recently approved by the local authority for the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda.

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