After nearly two decades, Europe's antinuclear tide is showing signs of turning.
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, Électricité 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.
In Germany, meanwhile, conservatives are taking the opportunity offered by this week's gas scare to challenge the 2020 deadline for an end to nuclear energy that the previous government imposed at the insistence of the Green Party.
In negotiations to form her government last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel was unable to persuade her Social Democrat coalition partners to drop the deadline. But supporters of nuclear energy are unlikely to give up, suggests Hermann Ott, director of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.
"It will be a constant fight for the next 20 years," predicts Mr. Ott. "Renewable energy has the potential to replace existing fossil fuel supplies....But if that does not happen fast enough, it is likely that the life of the nuclear reactors will be extended."
Not that many Germans would be happy with that. Only 38 percent of them are in favor of nuclear power, according to a European Union opinion poll last June which also found that across the EU, 55 percent of citizens oppose nuclear energy.
If the nuclear industry is to overcome this hostility, says the IEA's Mr. Ramsay, "it will have to demonstrate that it can handle nuclear waste."
Over the past couple of years, nuclear supporters have sought to deflect attention away from the problem of nuclear waste by highlighting the problems associated with fossil fuels, most notably greenhouse-gas emissions. They have enjoyed some success: 62 per cent of respondents in the 2005 EU poll agreed that nuclear power was advantageous in terms of cutting greenhouse gases - up from just 41 percent four years earlier.
As European policymakers begin to reconsider the nuclear option "it is Kyoto and the need to reduce emissions that is the driver," says Patrick Heren, founder of Heren Energy Ltd, which publishes which reports on the power markets.
Antinuclear activists insist that nuclear power is as potentially dangerous as ever, that nobody has yet found a safe way to dispose of highly radioactive waste, and that uranium deposits are too small to ensure long-term fuel supplies to nuclear plants. European governments would be much better advised to invest more heavily in wind and solar power, they argue.
For most of the past two decades, antinuclear ecologists have had the argument pretty much all their way in Europe. Today, acknowledges Sven Teske, energy expert for Greenpeace, "there is more of a debate."
For Mr. Heren, who also opposes the expansion of nuclear energy, the signs are obvious. "Quite clearly," he says, "the wind is blowing in favor of nuclear across Europe."
• Finland began construction on a nuclear reactor last year.
• France has given approval for a similar one and has plans for another.
• Bulgaria is expected to award a contract this month for building two units.
• Romania has resumed building a power station after a 15-year lull.
• The Czech Republic has plans to build two more nuclear plants by the end of the decade.
• Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, and Germany are all reconsidering previous plans to cap or phase out nuclear programs.
• Andreas Tzortzis contributed to this report from Berlin.