- - Friday, December 30, 2011

DUBLIN — The future of atomic energy in Europe looked bleak after the nuclear disaster in Japan, but some European leaders now see nuclear power as the only clean alternative to dirty coal-fired plants or unreliable wind and solar energy.

For Europe’s politicians — treaty-bound to reduce carbon emissions from coal- and oil-powered plants — the fears of nuclear meltdown and radiation are now being balanced by the need to keep the lights on and factories open across the Continent.

The issue has split Europe into pro- and anti-nuclear camps.

Some experts, including a few leading environmentalists, are calling for a reassessment of nonpolluting nuclear energy.

“Big, developed countries with large power demands must have low-carbon electricity … for which nuclear is the best substitute,” noted British environmentalist Mark Lynas said.

Mr. Lynas, who has written several books on environmental issues, maintains there is no contradiction between supporting both nuclear and renewable energy sources to meet the European Union’s commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions under the U.N. Kyoto Protocol.

“Neither on their own can do the job,” he said.

Mr. Lynas said Britain has “perhaps the best approach” by pursuing off-shore wind power and other renewable sources of energy while planning more nuclear plants.

“The problems of [unreliability] in terms of wind and solar [power] have not been adequately addressed yet,” he said.

“I don’t doubt that this can be solved, but this will need some novel technological breakthroughs. I think nuclear is an essential part of the energy mix going forward, however, and environmentally is one of the better options, not the least-worst.”

Mr. Lynas has faced criticism for his views, but minds are beginning to change.

In 2010, fellow environmentalist George Monbiot wrote that greens such as Mr. Lynas who supported nuclear energy were providing “convenient fictions” that chimed with “establishment” thinking.

Earlier this year, however, Mr. Monbiot joined Mr. Lynas in giving nuclear power a guarded welcome. He called nuclear power the fastest way to generate lower carbon emissions and “prevent runaway climate breakdown.”

Environmentalists with Greenpeace remain steadfast in opposition to nuclear power. Jan Haverkam, Greenpeace’s nuclear policy adviser for the EU, downplayed any reassessment of nuclear power by environmentalists.

“There are not so many environmentalists who are in favor of nuclear,” he said. “The reasons to continue to be against nuclear have only got stronger over the years.”

Mr. Haverkam said nuclear power remains not only dangerous but also prohibitively expensive.

“A one-gigawatt nuclear power station requires $6.5 billion to get it built alone and does not produce cheaper electricity,” he insisted, referring to a plant that could power up to 1 million homes. “Since the 1990s, in those places where it functions in a real market environment, nuclear has become more expensive.”

Mr. Haverkam said France and Finland, both currently building new nuclear plants, have seen significant cost overruns in the billions of dollars.

Political fallout

The division among environmentalists is also evident in the disunity in European politics. Fourteen of the EU’s 27 member states generate electricity using nuclear plants, but there is growing disagreement on the Continent over nuclear power because of the Japanese disaster.

Paul Seaman, a former public relations executive for the British Nuclear Industry Forum, said nuclear power’s future remains bleak in the short term. However, he is optimistic about its long-term prospects.

“In the developing world, they’re going nuclear — in China and the Middle East — but in Europe the atmosphere is pretty pessimistic,” he said. “[Britain] has said, ‘Yes,’ but has done nothing about it.”

After the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor, Germany dramatically ended its nuclear program, and other countries followed suit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel closed the country´s seven oldest nuclear reactors three days after the March 11 tsunami led to the reactor meltdown in Japan.

Since then, eight of Germany´s 19 plants have remained shut. In May, the government announced that all of Germany´s nuclear plants would be phased out by 2022. About 23 percent of German electricity is generated from nuclear energy.

Switzerland and Italy announced earlier this year that they, too, plan to phase out nuclear power altogether.

Austria, which outlawed nuclear power generation in 1978, plans to eliminate the use of imported nuclear power by 2015.

In May, Austrian Chancellor Werner Feymann launched a campaign to outlaw nuclear power across the entire EU.

A nuclear future?

Officials of the World Nuclear Association say the response to Fukushima has been more measured than many reports indicate.

“The future is nuclear,” said Steve Kidd, deputy director general of the World Nuclear Association. “Many countries around the world remain committed to nuclear power.”

He cited China and India as two examples of large developing countries that rely heavily on nuclear energy.

“It provides a clean, affordable and reliable source of electricity,” he said.

France continues to invest heavily in nuclear power, with almost 80 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear sources.

In October 2010, the British government approved the construction of eight new plants. The first is expected to be operational before 2020.

Britain currently has 18 plants with a total generating capacity of 10 gigawatts, accounting for just more than 16 percent of electricity used nationally.

Most of the reactors were built in the 1960s and are reaching the end of their operational lives.

The prospects for a nuclear renaissance appear strongest in Eastern Europe.

Poland shelved its communist-era plans to go nuclear in 1990 but revived them this year.

Lithuania, which currently produces about 90 percent of its electricity from Russian gas, closed its two Soviet-era nuclear reactors in 2004 but this year signed a contract with GE Hitachi to build a new nuclear facility in cooperation with neighboring Estonia and Latvia

Mr. Seaman, the former nuclear industry spokesman, said atomic power makes sense only when a country commits to it, something few European governments have done.

“The problem with nuclear is if you don’t do it on [a large] scale, you get huge costs because you’re constantly reinventing the wheel,” he said. “The regime in Europe, even where it’s positive, we get delay after delay.”

He predicted the nuclear doldrums will come to an end, one way or the other.

“In the long run, I’m optimistic,” he said. “The urge to grow and develop economies will come back.”

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