China, Russia stand by nuclear power despite Europe's backtracking

China, Russia and the US are still solidly behind nuclear power, but European officials are asking if they can meet their energy needs without fission.

Yves Logghe/AP
Workers end their shift at the nuclear plant in Tihange, Southeast of Brussels on Wednesday, March 16. Ministers and commissioners met in Brussels and agreed to conduct 'stress tests' on all of the nuclear plants located in EU countries to determine whether they could hold up to natural disasters and other emergencies.

Nuclear energy proponents, who had been making gains in support for nuclear power prior to Japan’s crisis, likely have a tough road ahead of them now.

Workers at the Fukashima nuclear power plant are still struggling to cool down some of the overheating reactors in order to prevent a meltdown.

While US Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Tuesday that the US will stand by its support for nuclear power as a viable renewable energy source and will continue its development, Germany shuttered seven of its oldest nuclear power plants and the European Union announced plans to test all 143 plants in its 27 countries, The New York Times reported. China said it has suspended approval for all new plants until safety rules can be examined.

Germany was the first European country to actually close plants. That Germany was the first to take such a step is not surprising – most Germans opposed nuclear power even before Japan’s troubles began, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Chancellor Angela Merkel angered many Germans last fall when she announced that the government was planning to overturn the previous government’s plan to end nuclear power by 2022.

Meanwhile, the European Union is making noise about a possible future in energy that does not include nuclear power. “We have to ask ourselves: ‘Can we in Europe, within time, secure our energy needs without nuclear power plants?’” asked EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger, according to the Associated Press.

Ministers and commissioners met in Brussels and agreed to conduct “stress tests” on all of the nuclear plants located in EU countries to determine whether they could hold up to natural disasters and other emergencies. Plants that fail the test will be shut down, according to Mr. Oettinger.

Even France, the most pro-nuclear power country out there, seems to be showing some cracks in its support, The Christian Science Monitor reported. About 75 percent of its power is nuclear and the public debate that has defined the nuclear energy industry in Germany has been largely absent in France – until now.

Fukushima is “changing the discussion in France,” says Bruno Chareyon of a nonpartisan group that monitors radiation levels. “Nuclear questions have never been discussed and [looking at Japan] the people want to discuss it like anywhere else in the world. Nuclear plants are not designed to handle all kinds of problems, like a plane crash. They can resist earthquakes but not the biggest quakes.”

Strangely, Russia and Belarus publicly finalized a deal Tuesday to build a Russian-designed nuclear plant in Belarus that would become operational in 2016. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin defended the plan, saying that the plant would be built with the latest technology and would therefore be safer than the plants causing problems in Japan.

Making the decision even more surprising is the fact that Belarus suffered more than any other former Soviet satellite after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986 and some of its territory is still marked as off-limits radioactive zones.

Perhaps the move most indicative of the mounting fear about nuclear power is China’s decision to halt approval of any new nuclear projects. China has the world’s most ambitious nuclear program, according to the Washington Post – it has 13 reactors in operation, 26 under construction, and many more in the planning stages.

When the nuclear crisis first started unfolding, Chinese officials said it would prompt no changes to their plans – but the Chinese public has since been watching Japan with increasing anxiety and debating for the first time the country’s decision to use nuclear power to address its burgeoning energy needs.

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