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Europe warms to nuclear power

Russia's gas cutoff Sunday gave a new push to a trend gathering momentum.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2006


After nearly two decades, Europe's antinuclear tide is showing signs of turning.

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For the first time in 15 years, a European country has begun construction of a nuclear reactor, and six more are likely to be built in the next decade. Other countries are revising plans to phase out their nuclear programs. And this week's brief but brutal drop in Europe's supplies of crucial Russian gas has only served to fuel the trend.

"People are saying 'let's take a second look' at nuclear power," says William Ramsay, deputy executive director of the International Energy Agency. "Rising oil prices means nuclear is becoming more economically attractive, and gas prices are a second kick in the pants."

To reduce its dependence on oil and gas imports, Europe needs to "look at nuclear power and at renewable energy," European Union Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said Wednesday.

Nuclear power plants remain unpopular with a majority of Europeans, who are worried about what happens to the radioactive waste. Industry officials, however, are playing on the public's competing worries about the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming. Nuclear plants, they point out, emit practically no CO2.

"Nuclear is the only game in town if you are serious about cutting greenhouse gases" as the European Union has pledged to do under the Kyoto Protocol, argues Ian Hore-Lacy, spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, an industry lobbying group.

With the legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and rising environmental concerns clouding the nuclear horizon, EU nations stopped building nuclear plants for 15 years. But last yearFinland ended that streak by starting construction of a third-generation pressurized water reactor, designed by the French company Areva. It's to come on-line in 2009.

The French state-owned power generating company, √Člectricit√© de France, has won government approval to build a similar plant in France and chosen the site. In addition, President Jacques Chirac announced Thursday, France will complete a pilot plant by 2020 that will produce less waste and burn more efficiently.

In eastern Europe the Bulgarian government is expected to award a contract this month for the construction of two units, Romania has restarted building a power station that was mothballed 15 years ago, and the Czech Republic's energy plan foresees the construction of two more nuclear plants by the end of the decade.

The Swiss parliament last year ended Switzerland's moratorium on building nuclear power plants and extended the operating lifetime of the country's five existing units, and the British government has promised an energy review this year that many analysts expect to favor nuclear. The review "will include, specifically, the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a recent speech.

The question of nuclear power has resurfaced even in countries that have abandoned - or pledged to abandon - it. In Italy, which closed its four power stations after a 1987 referendum, Industry Minister Claudio Scajola said this week that "the development of nuclear technologies remains an important element for Italy's energy policy."

Sweden has dropped plans to close all its nuclear plants by 2010, and Belgium's intention to start phasing out nuclear power in 2015 has run up against a finding by the Federal Planning Bureau that nuclear power is the best way for the country to meet its Kyoto commitments to cut back on greenhouse gases.