Nuclear industry sees fertile ground in green Europe

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

While European leaders are at the forefront of fighting global warming, these no-carbon crusaders for building green and promoting renewable sources of energy still tiptoe around nuclear power.

It's widely unpopular among Europeans who are worried about what to do with nuclear waste and prickly for politicians who are not keen to swim against the antinuclear current.

But hoping to regain some momentum from Europe's push to fight global warming, the nuclear power industry is redoubling efforts to promote its product as a climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels.

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That movement to deal aggressively with climate change could put some European governments in a vise, facing the twin pressures of an antinuclear public and a pro-nuclear campaign by the energy industry.

When Europeans opposed to nuclear power were told that it doesn't produce greenhouse gases, some did change their minds, says Ute Blohm-Hieber, a nuclear energy specialist at the European Commission, the executive body of the 27-member European Union.

Still, she says, most people surveyed said they still would not favor increasing the number of nuclear reactors.

Most countries are not considering building new nuclear power plants unless the private sector puts up the money. Many of the countries that already have plants, such as Germany and Sweden, are committed to phasing them out over the next 20 years.

So while European energy companies have been actively looking to sell their nuclear power technology to the Asian and American markets, they are finding the door shut to them at home.

Nuclear power is likely to be little more than a footnote to the energy and climate change agenda for the next European Union summit later this month, much to the frustration of the nuclear energy industry.

As one industry representative, Alessandro Clerici, put it this week, the industry has failed to get across its message that nuclear power is a safe, clean alternative to fossil fuels.

"Communication is bad," said Mr. Clerici, a leader of the World Energy Council, at a Brussels conference on nuclear energy in Europe. "Final users of electricity are not using their brains but their emotions."

The EU, meanwhile, is forging ahead with other ideas to change the way it produces and uses energy.

Two years after it adopted an ambitious program to cut greenhouse gases associated with global warming, it is set to consider a new round of proposals this month that would further commit its members to wean themselves from energy dependence on oil and gas.

The European Commission has proposed that by 2020 at least 20 percent of Europe's power should come from renewable energy sources, such as wind towers for electricity and biofuels for transportation.

The goal would be to shrink energy consumption, lower carbon dioxide emissions, and reduce Europe's dependence on foreign oil and gas suppliers. The commission steered clear of making any recommendations regarding nuclear power, saying each country would be left to make its own decisions about whether to add, cut, or maintain nuclear reactors.

The absence of any recommendations involving nuclear power, which now generates 30 percent of the electricity in the EU as a whole, has pleased longtime opponents.

"Of all different energy options, nuclear was the loser," says Mark Johnston, a lobbyist for the international environmental group Greenpeace.

"It's not popular, for one. And there are still widespread doubts across Europe, partly for economic and cost reasons and because of the waste issue," he says.

While EU surveys have found some shift in public attitudes toward nuclear power, opinion remains generally negative. A survey of 1,000 people in each of the 27 EU member countries recently found only 37 percent of those interviewed favored nuclear power, while 55 percent said its risks outweighed the advantages.

While those questioned were less concerned than in the past about the safety of reactors, but were still worried about what to do with stockpiles of nuclear waste, says Ms. Blohm-Hieber.

In France, for example, 80 percent of electricity is generated by nuclear power. A new-generation nuclear reactor has been approved and is set for construction on the Normandy coast, one of only two new reactors being built in Europe.

The state-owned electrical utility, EDF, remains committed to developing new nuclear plants and has been seeking to export its technology to Britain and Asia. And the French nuclear generator manufacturer Areva is aggressively looking for new customers outside France and is in negotiations to sell reactors to China.

But the French appear less enamored of nuclear power than their energy industry or government. The EU survey on nuclear power found that 52 percent of people in France believed the risks of nuclear energy outweighed its benefits because of the unresolved issue of how to dispose of nuclear waste.

The survey also found that 56 percent of the French believed nuclear power could easily be replaced by renewable energy sources like wind power. Other polls have found that climate change and global warming are major preoccupations for a large majority of people in France. The combination of all those interests creates a headache for politicians, as the French Socialist candidate for president, Ségolène Royal, found recently.

Last month Ms. Royal, responding to environmentalists' concerns about radioactive waste, called for a moratorium on new nuclear plants, including the one scheduled for construction in France. But within days, she had to pull back from that position after French energy companies complained that it could hurt their efforts to export nuclear reactor technology.

A similar discussion is brewing in Germany, where the main political parties agreed in 2000 to shut down all the country's 17 nuclear plants by 2020.

Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed the deal when she formed her coalition government two years ago. But she also warned that what she called "an ideologically motivated nuclear phaseout" might make German energy companies less competitive in the market for selling nuclear know-how.

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