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Energy Insights: Energy News: Europe warms up to nuclear power

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Europe warms up to nuclear power


It's seen as an option as global warming worries grow, fuel crunch looms

Friday, December 30, 2005 By TOD ROBBERSON / The Dallas Morning News

LONDON - It's the core question radiating across Europe today: How can governments fight global warming while continuing to meet their populations' growing demands for energy?

Facing few viable answers, Europe's leaders are showing greater willingness to buck the trend toward environmental correctness and utter that politically unspeakable N-word: nuclear power.

The nuclear option, widely discarded only a year or two ago as too unpopular and a surefire way to lose votes, is finding its way into political discourse as European leaders scramble to avert what they warn is a looming energy crunch.

Environmental groups already are gearing up for battle, although they admit the nuclear-power lobby has made tremendous progress in advancing its cause - not only in Europe but also in the United States, which is revisiting nuclear power after a 27-year hiatus in new construction orders.

"There's very much a sense of reopening that debate," said Russell Marsh, director of energy policy at the Green Alliance environmental group in London. "It's clear that other governments are changing their positions ... and it's certain that the nuclear industry has been lobbying quite hard across Europe recently."

Polls suggest Europeans' fears about nuclear plants' safety have diminished since the 1986 explosion at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear power station and the near meltdown at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island station in 1979. The nuclear power industry insists its safety record by far surpasses that of conventional-fuel plants, but anti-nuclear groups say other important safety issues, such as the disposal of radioactive waste, remain unresolved.

Climate change

Analysts say nuclear power's growing popularity is rooted, ironically, in the successful campaign launched by major environmental groups in recent years to draw attention to global climate change.

After pressuring world leaders to adopt policies aimed at sharply reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, environmental groups may have opened the door for the nuclear power lobby to argue that its technology meets those cleaner environmental standards.

"The issue back on the agenda with a vengeance is energy policy," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a Nov. 29 speech. "Round the world, you can sense feverish rethinking: Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency. I have no doubt where policy is heading, here, in the U.S., across the emerging economies of the world."

He added, "The future is clean energy. And nations will look to diversify out of energy dependence on one source." But the energy sources favored by environmental groups - wind, solar and thermal - will not come close to filling the country's needs, Mr. Blair said. He has ordered a policy review that "will include, specifically, the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations."

Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of Britain's total energy needs, but most of the country's 23 nuclear reactors are due for decommissioning over the next 15 years. Europe's 204 nuclear power plants account for more than half of the world total.

Likewise in Germany, a nuclear power debate that seemed to have been put to rest long ago has rekindled. The nation has been decommissioning all of its 19 nuclear power plants with a goal of becoming nuclear-free by 2020. Now, however, the conservative government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who took office last month, says it wants nuclear power back.

"In my view, an ideologically motivated nuclear phase-out does not reflect economic demands," Mrs. Merkel was quoted as saying this year. She has been particularly mindful of neighboring France, which relies on nuclear power for almost 80 percent of its generating capacity and is the world's largest exporter of electricity.

"For me, the question is, How can Germany, with its technical know-how, profit from this export potential? As a patriot, I would like to see my country profit from our expertise, not watch others take the profits," Mrs. Merkel said.

Alternatives fall short

Alternative energy sources have failed to make up for the energy deficit created by Germany's nuclear-plant decommissioning, which has forced the country to purchase electricity from its neighbors in Eastern Europe and France. Much to the environmental movement's frustration, those neighbors have excess generating capacity largely because they rely heavily on nuclear power.

Environmental groups say that nuclear power plants are too expensive and that the industry has no permanent solution to the disposal of nuclear waste, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years. Further, they assert, nuclear power plants could be vulnerable to attack by terrorists.

But Ian Hore-Lacy, spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, says nuclear power plants are more cost-efficient than conventional plants and produce only about 2 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions created by coal-fired power plants.

Dwindling supplies of natural gas and a growing concern about the instability of fuel sources in the Middle East also support the nuclear power argument, he added.

"In Eastern Europe, there's been no negative nuclear sentiment at all. In France, there's never been much negative sentiment," Mr. Hore-Lacy said. "In Germany, it [pro-nuclear power sentiment] is strengthening; and in the U.K., it's strengthening dramatically."

Feelings in Europe

Polls across Europe suggest that the public is amenable to a new discussion of nuclear power. In March, a European Union poll among 24,700 citizens in its 25 member states found that more than 60 percent agree that nuclear power would help diversify Europe's energy resources, would be a viable way of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and would help reduce Europe's reliance on imported oil.

But most respondents agreed with the environmental lobby's claim that the storage and transport of radioactive waste is risky and potentially dangerous to the environment and public health.

Three-quarters of respondents described themselves as not well-informed about nuclear energy. Environmentalists say ignorance makes the public vulnerable to the nuclear power industry's arguments at a time when renewable energy sources appear to be falling out of favor.

In recent years, European governments invested billions of dollars on renewable "green" energy technologies such as wind, solar and thermal power. But the technologies have yet to prove reliable or yield high enough output to be viable replacements for conventional power plants.

The countryside across many European nations, particularly Germany, Spain and Denmark, is dotted with large wind farms, the source of complaints from local groups that call them eyesores.

That negative attitude "is not very helpful because it plays into the hands of those who argue against renewables," said Mr. Marsh, of the Green Alliance.

Other missteps by environmentalists may have boosted publicity for the nuclear power lobby. Just before Mr. Blair delivered his Nov. 29 speech, two protesters from Greenpeace climbed above the podium and unfurled posters declaring, "Nuclear: Wrong answer." Their presence forced Mr. Blair to relocate the venue for his wide-ranging speech, which contained only two sentences directly referring to nuclear power.

The resulting uproar over the protesters helped turn those two sentences into front-page, banner-headlined articles in all major British newspapers the next day.


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