Across Europe, Japan crisis provokes nuclear rethink

The European Union will carry out 'stress tests' at all of its operating nuclear power plants and some countries may scrap plans for new reactors.

Yves Logghe/AP
Vapor comes out of the cooling tower at the nuclear plant in Tihange, Southeast of Brussels on Wednesday, March 16. The European Union considers stress tests to see how its 143 nuclear plants would react in emergencies and says it might have to reassess the construction procedures in the wake of Japan's crisis.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The nuclear crisis on Japan’s northeast shores is throwing several nascent European nuclear projects into debate – in Poland, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland – a day after European leaders agreed to “stress tests” on all current nuclear plants in the European Union.

EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said a planned Bulgarian nuclear plant on the Danube in a highly seismic zone will be reassessed, and offered bleak comments on Europe's nuclear future.

Europe is the most nuclearized zone on the planet, with 143 reactors, and eight more under construction. Yet the EU has no formal nuclear policy, with each nation mapping its own plans.

After the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 in what is now Ukraine, a powerful antinuclear lobby emerged in Europe, especially in Germany and Italy. But in recent years, visions of a “nuclear renaissance” here are supplementing a bright green European proclivity for wind-turbines and solar power.

Yet Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, capturing the public mood as Europeans watch the tops blown off of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, calls the disaster “a turning point in the history of technology based society.”

Critics complain she’s pandering to voters. French leader Nicolas Sarkozy plans to raise nuclear safety as a major theme at the next G-20 that France heads; pound-for-pound France is the world’s nuclear leader, with 58 reactors.

Europe desires to be the premier Kyoto-adhering low carbon-emitting civilization, and its utilities increasingly forecast nuclear power as part of the mix. The relatively minor accidents since Chernobyl, promises of improved safety, and arguments of reduced global warming and coal-fired power have brought billions in EU loans for new nuclear projects.

But the renaissance comes directly in the face of events at Fukushima Daiichi. Ms. Merkel ordered the shut down of seven plants, and EU energy chief Mr. Oettinger even hinted the “possibility” of a “foreseeable future” without nuclear reactors in Europe, though critics said he was speaking ahead of himself.

Still, amid Japan’s agony, Switzerland’s energy ministry said Tuesday it will put on hold three planned reactors.

Italian officials and representatives of its public utility Enel vowed Monday to move forward with a $25 billion joint French project to build four reactors. Italy voted no to nuclear in 1987. And now, despite government efforts to restart nuclear projects, with 63 percent of Italians opposed to reactors in one of Europe’s more severe earthquake nations, a June referendum could permanently scotch the project.

Poland is divided 50-50 on pending nuclear blueprints, but Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said his country will move forward with construction of two projects, one to open in 2020. “Japan’s disaster is not evidence that nuclear energy is unsafe; Poland does not have to fear an earthquake or tsunami,” he said.

Sweden, with 10 working plants, phased out nuclear energy after the Three Mile Island incident in the US, but last year brought nuclear renaissance ideas back on line. Now new public fears may again delay this.

In Brussels, much of the energy and focus on nuclear reactors has come from Austria and its environment minister, Nikolaus Berlakovich. Antinuclear views appear to transcend party politics in Austria, which banned reactors in 1978 after completing the building of one plant.

Yesterday’s “stress tests” and safety review adopted by the EU were Austrian proposals. Even Oettinger, when asked about details of the stress test, referred inquires to the Austrians. The tests, which are voluntary, will take place in the second half of the year. They will examine safety issues involving earthquakes, flooding, the age of the reactors and their cooling systems and ability to contain a meltdown.

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