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Nuclear industry sees fertile ground in green Europe

By Susan SachsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2007


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.

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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.

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.