Russian gas cutoff energizes nuclear comeback
Italy, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Britain are among those giving nuclear another look.
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Italy's conservative government began pushing for atomic energy last year, but until now hasn't moved forward with the idea. Public support for nuclear energy remains relatively weak, although it's on the rise, with slightly less than half the country supporting nuclear energy, according to a poll released two months ago. The gas crisis is only expected to strengthen support.Skip to next paragraph
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Italy is Europe's third-largest consumer of natural gas after Germany and Britain, importing 85 percent of its energy supply, mostly from Algeria and Russia. It is also one of the world's largest importer of electricity, most of which comes from nuclear reactors in France.
If Italy restarts its nuclear program, it would not be the first time a Western European country has abandoned its antinuclear stance out of concern over the reliability of Russian-supplied energy.
In 2000, German leaders announced a plan to phase out nuclear power – 17 reactors supply about a third of the nation's electricity. In September 2007, however, Chancellor Angela Merkel scuttled the phaseout. The decision came after Russia shut off the Druzhba oil pipeline, which accounts for 20 percent of Germany's oil imports, over a dispute with Belarus.
Although public support for nuclear energy might be rising in Europe – especially after a recent cold snap raised anxiety levels – developing nuclear energy is slow process with many downsides, says Arianna Checchi, an energy security expert at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
"Building a nuclear power plant requires years of work and €2-3 billion, without taking into account the security requirements and the risk," she says, referring to the concern of nuclear proliferation and storage of waste.
Ms. Checchi is particularly skeptical about the construction of nuclear facilities in Italy, where the political climate is volatile: "It's a country where long-term projects, such as building a new power plant or reopening an old one, should be weighed very carefully. The fact that the current administration supports atomic energy does not mean the next one will."
Plans are already moving forward in Britain to build at least four new nuclear reactors. This week, in fact, two of Germany's largest power companies announced an estimated $30 billion investment in the projects.
Although Britain's investment in additional nuclear reactors is not directly tied to the ongoing natural-gas crisis – the reactors aren't expected to be ready for another decade – government officials have said that additional nuclear energy capacity will help ensure a reliable, long-term source of power, not to mention a source that has a low carbon footprint.