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. Fossil Fuel Crisis Drives Europe To Nuclear, Green Energy

Last year Finland became the first European country in 15 years to start building a new nuclear power plant, a facility scheduled to go into operation in 2009.
by Richard Ingham
Paris (AFP) Jan 08, 2006
Surging oil prices, deepening concern about carbon pollution and sudden worries over Russia's reliability as a gas supplier have been a windfall for Europe's nuclear and renewable energy industries.

Both sectors are looking to 2006 and beyond to widen their share of Europe's energy market, where oil and gas remain firmly enthroned.

The biggest beneficiary could be the continent's nuclear firms, whose fortunes have been blighted for nearly two decades.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which sent a pall of radioactive fallout over much of Europe, was a hallmark.

It blocked the construction of new nuclear plants across Western Europe, caused others to be mothballed or scrapped, encouraged a shift to wind energy and other clean sources and prompted the rise of Europe's powerful green movement.

Things, though, are changing. Little by little, nuclear's time in the wilderness is coming to an end.

"Over the past two years, we have seen a perceptible shift in public opinion about nuclear power... people are much more positive," Laurent Furedi, a spokesman for the industry's lobby association, Foratom, in Brussels, told AFP.

"There are various factors for it, namely security of supply, the rising price of (fossil-fuel) energy, and concern about climate change from carbon gases. The public mood is changing a lot, and is overtaking fears about nuclear."

Last year Finland became the first European country in 15 years to start building a new nuclear power plant, a facility scheduled to go into operation in 2009.

Bulgaria put out tenders for the construction of a nuclear plant to replace Soviet-era reactors being closed for safety reasons at Kozloduy.

France pushed ahead with plans for a so-called third-generation design, like that being built in Finland, to replace its existing stable of nuclear reactors.

On Wednesday, President Jacques Chirac unveiled a scheme for a "fourth-generation" prototype reactor, designed to be more efficient and produce less waste, that would start up by 2020.

In the coming months, Britain is facing a major energy review that British Prime Minister Tony Blair said will include whether to renew nuclear power stations built in the 1970s and 80s.

The decisions will be "difficult and controversial," warned Blair, noting indirectly that nuclear plants were negligible emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas.

Across the 25 EU states, 148 nuclear reactors account for 32 percent of electricity needs, a figure that ranges from just four percent in the Netherlands to 78 percent in France, according to Foratom.

Some countries have already phased out nuclear or promised to do so, but in several of them there are signs of a change of heart.

Sweden has scrapped plans to phase out its 12 nuclear reactors by 2010 in line with a referendum made in 1980, and opinion polls say two-thirds of voters either want the plants to continue until their operational lifespan ends or be replaced by new plants in the future.

Germany's new coalition government, too, is wrangling over the commitment to phase out nuclear plants by 2020, with two ministers publicly disagreeing last week over what to do.

In Italy, whose four power stations were closed down after a post-Chernobyl referendum, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi kindled a nationwide debate last year by calling for nuclear to be included in a major review of energy supplies. A similar debate was unleashed in 2004 in Belgium, where N-plants are scheduled to be phased out by 2015.

Despite this, there remains strong anti-nuclear sentiment in Europe.

Fission may be back, but it is not yet in fashion -- and even if that were to happen, no-one sees a return to nuclear's glory years of the 1950s and 60s, when the energy was billed as cheap, safe and endless.

Memories remain scarred by Chernobyl and, even if there has not been a major nuclear accident in Europe since that time, the safety issue will not go away.

Green campaigners point to an intensifying public debate about how to safely store highly radioactive waste that has quietly built after half a century of nuclear power.

A survey of 24,700 European citizens last year by the European Commission found that only 37 percent were in favour of nuclear power but 55 percent were against it. Eight percent voiced no opinion.

That means the ground is also fertile for Europe's green-energy firms, which have built a world lead in some areas of renewables, notably wind and biofuels.

Corin Millais, chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), said the scare over EU gas imports from Russia, triggered by last week's showdown on gas prices between Moscow and Ukraine, "made wind even more attractive" for easing Europe's costly, vulnerable dependence on fossil fuels.

"Wind farms are a mature technology, have low costs and can be installed swiftly," he said, noting that a nuclear plant can take years of construction before it delivers the first watt.

Six percent of the EU's energy needs are met today by wind and other renewables, half of which comes from wind, although the proportion varies greatly among member states.

The European Commission has set a goal of 12 percent from renewables by 2010, and the European Parliament last September demanded a mandatory benchmark of 20 percent by 2020.

Millais said that the market for renewables remained hedged with regulations that made it difficult to sell green electricity across borders.

If such problems could be fixed, wind farms could provide 12 percent of EU electricity by 2020 "and probably 25 percent by 2030," he said.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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