Russian gas cutoff energizes nuclear comeback

Italy, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Britain are among those giving nuclear another look.

Ready to restart? Slovakia recently announced plans to restart the Soviet-era Bohunice nuclear plant (pictured above) if Russian gas deliveries don't resume soon.
SOURCE: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)/dpa

Europe's natural gas crisis is causing a nuclear fallout of sorts.

With the squabble between Russia and Ukraine leaving much of the continent with uncertain gas supplies, some governments seem to be getting over their "Chernobyl complexes" and are returning to nuclear energy, hoping it will provide a form of reliable, domestically produced energy.

Slovakia and Bulgaria, among the worst hit by the gas cutoff, announced this week that they may reopen Soviet-era reactors that had been dismantled in recent years, before the countries joined the European Union.

The EU had encouraged and provided funds for the closure of old nuclear facilities in Eastern Europe out of security concerns following the 1986 disaster in Ukraine.

Leaders of Russia and Ukraine are expected to meet in Moscow Saturday to discuss the crisis, which began Jan. 6. Even if natural-gas supplies are fully restored, many worry the crisis will only be repeated next winter – after all, this is the third year in a row for a energy spat. Experts say the underlying causes of corruption and political disputes show no end of abating.

These factors helped prompt the Italian government to recently declare its intention to return to atomic energy, despite two decades of officially shunning the power source.

"What just happened made the Italians understand the importance of energy security [and that] we must go back to nuclear power if we want to become less dependent on others' moods," Claudio Scajola, Italy's minister for economic development, said Monday.

In 1987, a year after the Chernobyl disaster dusted much of Europe with radiation, Italians voted in a national referendum to cancel the country's nuclear energy program. Now, even the organizer of the antinuclear campaign has changed his mind, saying Italy must give nuclear another chance.

"The crisis clearly shows how vulnerable we are to geopolitical instabilities. We need to diversify our resources and that means also opening up to nuclear energy," says Chicco Testa, the referendum's organizer and one of Italy's leading environmentalists. "It's like playing a piano with many keys. Unfortunately ... we have been playing just two keys: oil and natural gas."

Environmentalists continue to debate the issue, but a desire to reduce the carbon footprint of energy suppliers is renewing interest in nuclear energy.

Mr. Testa first admitted six months ago that the referendum was a mistake. In a recent book, he promoted the idea of both renewable and nuclear energy. Now, he says his "opinion is really strengthened."

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.

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.

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