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Europe Debates Nuclear Energy

Washington (UPI) Jan 11, 2006
European Union countries are starting to rethink their opposition to nuclear energy amid a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas supplies, but energy analysts say a switch still lacks a green light.

The debate is between proponents of nuclear energy as a clean alternative to gas and coal and those who point to the dangers of radiation and radioactive waste.

But Russia's decision - now reversed -- on Jan. 1 to stop gas shipments to Ukraine, a move that reduced the flow to Italy by 25 percent and France by 30 percent, spurred debate on how to prepare for supply disruptions.

"People are saying, 'Let's take a second look' at nuclear power," William Ramsay, deputy executive director of the International Energy Agency, told the Christian Science Monitor. "Rising oil prices means nuclear is becoming more economically attractive, and gas prices are a second kick in the pants."

Talk of higher oil prices and supply shocks has spurred both new nuclear development plans and the restarting of long-dormant units. In Europe, five nations have either begun construction on new nuclear facilities, have given approval for updated plants or are expecting to award contracts to build new units.

Finland began constructing a third-generation pressurized water reactor last year to come on-line in 2009 while France has approved a similar plant and another pilot plant by 2020; Bulgaria is expected to award a contract later this month for construction of two plants; Romania has restarted work on a plant abandoned 15 years ago while the Czech Republic predicts the construction of two more by the end of the decade.

Similar moves are being considered in Britain, and in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to reconsider plans to cap or phase out nuclear energy by 2020 amid pressure from her Social Democrat coalition allies.

Many Europeans still disapprove of nuclear energy as an acceptable form of power. According to a Euro-barometer poll in June 2005 for the European Commission, 38 percent of Germans backed nuclear power; 55 percent opposed nuclear power across the EU.

But environmental concerns, which used to be nuclear power's biggest problem, is now seen as less of a problem thanks to fears of global warming. Nuclear power emits almost no carbon dioxide emissions and with 10 of 25 EU nations set to miss their Kyoto Protocol commitments on greenhouse gases, nuclear power gets a boost.

"Nuclear is the only game in town if you are serious about cutting greenhouse gases," Ian Hore-Lacy, spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, told the Christian Science Monitor.

But nuclear power brings its own problems beyond the fears of accidents like the Chernobyl disaster.

"Nuclear power produces tons of radioactive waste that costs billions to store and will pose a risk to humans for thousands of years after disposal," Norman Baker, the environment spokesman for Britain's Liberal-Democrat party, told BBC News.

Still, political considerations caused by Russia's decision earlier this month has given room to pause.

The dispute between Moscow and Kiev is still not over. A negotiated deal between the two governments was thrown into confusion Tuesday when Ukraine's parliament passed a vote of no confidence in the prime minister who handled the negotiations.

Sergey Kupriyanov, a spokesman for Gazprom's chief executive officer, also announced Monday that each 1,000 cu. meters of gas exported to Europe will now cost an average of $250. This price increase has nations worried over how to pay for energy costs, which in many cases are doubling.

Gazprom, for example, is now insisting Moldova buy Russian gas supplies for $160, double what the poorest nation in Europe now pays.

That "is not a market price for Moldova where the joint Moldovan-Russian venture, Moldovagaz, operates and where the joint gas business enjoys a number of privileges," Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin argued in Russia's Kommersant newspaper.

These moves highlight the need for a diversified energy plan across Europe, which would include multiple suppliers of energy and alternative sources.

"This serves to illustrate the importance of a diverse energy portfolio to a nation's energy security," Steve Kerekes, a spokesman from the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, told United Press International.

The 1986 Chernobyl accident, which took place in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union, frightened Europe into rejecting nuclear power.

Two of the four nuclear power plants at Chernobyl have been out of action since the disaster, 20 years ago in March. But Ukraine electricity supplies still depend on the two that are still in operation, despite efforts by the EU to persuade Ukraine to scrap the plants, built with controversial Soviet-era technology.

No new nuclear power station was built after Chernobyl and in Germany and Sweden governments pledged to close down their existing nuclear plants. These promises are now being reviewed as energy costs hit $60 a barrel for oil, and as fears of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels make "clean" nuclear energy seem more attractive.

Thrust into the energy wars brought by uncertain markets and supply shocks, a healthy debate must ensue across Europe as to the best way to prepare for future disruptions, experts say.

"I think folks have to realize there is a byproduct from nuclear generation," Kerekes told UPI. "It is very compact though from the amount of power it provides."

Kerekes went on to frame how he feels the debate over nuclear power, and a diverse energy supply in particular, should proceed.

"The political and business leaders in those countries must advocate diverse energy so folks are not beholden to foreign sources of energy and the volatility of energy markets," he said.

Source: United Press International

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