Nuclear power popular again as energy prices soar

Friday, May 30, 2008

PARIS - Slammed by the surging cost of energy imported from volatile regions and befuddled about how to meet their pledges for tackling global warming, European countries are reviving nuclear's role in their energy strategies.

Pro-nuclear countries are pushing ahead with plans for next-generation reactors, encountering so far either minimal opposition or even acquiescence. In some anti-nuclear countries, decisions to phase out power are being reversed or are under threat.

``We need nuclear energy as part of the energy mix,'' the President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, said this week before a ceremony to honour environmentally friendly projects.

Such an endorsement would have been unthinkable two or three years ago. European memories were still seared by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when a stricken Soviet nuclear plant spewed fallout over the continent.

But in January this year, the British Government gave the go- ahead to replace 14 nuclear plants that date from the 1970s. France, which gets 78 per cent of its electricity needs from nuclear, has started work on a new-generation European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), a model that is also being built in Finland by the French firm Areva and Germany's Siemens.

Recent weeks have also shown weakening or defections among the anti-nuclear camp - Germany, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands - which either have no nuclear plants or are in the process of phasing them out.

Last week, Italy's new centre-right Government said that by 2013 it would restart building nuclear reactors, reversing a 1987 referendum vote to abandon nuclear power and shut down Italy's four nuclear plants.

In 1998, Germany vowed to phase out its nuclear plants by 2020. Its 17 remaining plants account for 28 per cent of its electricity needs. Chancellor Angela Merkel favours extending their lifespan - a view shared by 49 per cent of Germans, according to opinion polls - but has her hands tied by a coalition agreement with the Social Democrats to keep the phaseout in place.

A similar dilemma prevails in Sweden, which depends on atomic power for nearly half of its electricity needs. In 1999, the country decided to phase out all 12 nuclear power stations within the next 30 years. But new polls say that 48 per cent of the public want replacements to be built.

In eastern Europe, Lithuania is teaming up with Poland, Latvia and Estonia to build a new reactor, estimated to cost between 2.4 billion ($4.8 billion) and 4 billion, by 2015. Slovakia and Bulgaria are to build new reactors to replace Soviet-era models. Nuclear owes its European resurgence to a double whammy.

First is the soaring price of imported oil and gas and doubts about the reliability of this lifeline. Italy, which depends on imports to meet 87 per cent of its energy needs, suffered in the winter of 2006 when supplies of Russian gas were disrupted.

The second cause is the European Union's commitments to tackle carbon pollution - emissions from nuclear plants are negligible.
''Nuclear energy can, of course, make a major contribution to this battle against climate change,'' said the head of the EU's executive commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.

''Nuclear energy also helps to enhance [the] EU's security of energy supplies and it increases diversification of our energy sources and reduces our dependence on imported gas.''

The EU has vowed to reduced its emissions of carbon dioxide by 20 per cent by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, and give clean energies to a fifth of the energy market.

Hydro, wind, biomass and solar are on this list, but nuclear is not, at the behest of anti-nuclear countries led by Austria.

How to meet the lofty target is a puzzle. Clean renewables are still in their infancy yet will be required to deliver gigawatts of power when many fossil-fuel plants and nuclear power stations are at the end of their operational life. Nuclear now accounts for 15 per cent of EU power supplies.

After keeping a low, almost apologetic profile for years, the nuclear industry is eagerly pointing out the conundrum. France's state firms have launched an especially aggressive sales pitch to other European countries and nations on the EU rim.

As a sign of its new confidence, the industry is calling on the EU to scrap its patchwork of certification rules for building plants and introduce common rules to save time and costs.

Patricia Lorenz of Friends of the Earth Europe accuses the industry of scare tactics and sidestepping the questions of accident liability and safe disposal of dangerous long-term waste.

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