Fukushima Forces Europe to Rethink Nuclear Energy

The unfolding catastrophe at the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima has forced a number of European countries to radically rethink their energy policies and eventually renounce nuclear power.

In Germany, the conservative government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that it would present a new energy policy within three months.

The period coincides with the so-called moratorium on nuclear power the government in Berlin decreed Mar. 14, within days of the magnitude 9 earthquake, followed by a tsunami that devastated the northeast coast of Japan, and severely damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Merkel's nuclear power moratorium defers for three months the government's own decision last September to prolong by 12 years on average the lifespan of all 17 nuclear power plants operating in the country.

In addition to the moratorium, the German government immediately ordered the definitive shutdown of the two oldest nuclear power reactors, in operation since the mid-1970s. Five other nuclear power reactors, in operation since the late 1970s, were also closed down, albeit only temporarily - one plant has been out of service for several months, due to technical problems.

According to official figures, the 17 nuclear power reactors generated 23 percent of all energy consumed in Germany. However, the recent shutdown of about half of the installed nuclear capacity has not led to any shortages.

Environment minister Norbert Roettgen said Mar. 31 that during the three-month period ending next June, the government will verify safety and technical standards in all nuclear power plants, by simulation of earthquakes, floods, and accidents or aerial attacks.

"We have to find out whether our nuclear power plants can resist these kinds of incidents, (and) what risks we could be facing," Roettgen said during a press conference in Berlin.

The Fukushima catastrophe has indeed left a deep imprint on German national politics. In the regional parliamentary elections in the federal states of Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate Mar. 27, the Green party, mostly made up of anti-nuclear activists, obtained substantial shares of the vote.

In Baden-Wuerttemberg, a stronghold of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party of Chancellor Merkel, the Green party bagged for the first time the post of the state premier who will be ruling in coalition with the Social Democratic Party. A similar coalition was expected to be formed in Rhineland Palatinate.

Both parties ruled Germany between 1998 and 2005, and approved the phasing out of nuclear energy, originally to be completed by 2022. But the decision of Merkel's government last September overruled the phasing-out.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis, energy experts have reaffirmed that Germany could do without nuclear power by 2015, without suffering any power shortages.

"We can shut down all nuclear power plants within a few years, without major costs, and without suffering shortages," Olav Hohmeyer, professor of energy policy at the University of Flensburg, and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told IPS.

The European Union also announced that it will be carrying out "stress tests" on all 143 nuclear reactors in operation in the member countries. These tests could lead to shutting down several nuclear power plants.

During an intervention at the EU Environment Committee Mar. 16, energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger said the EU's 143 nuclear plants will be subjected to a European safety test and 'stress tests' taking into account risks such as earthquakes, flooding, aircraft crashes, cyber or terrorist attacks, cooling systems and their stability and local electricity supply failure.

Although the announcement of the tests was widely welcomed in Europe, environmental and energy experts pointed out that the risks represented by nuclear power go beyond the mere operation of the reactor systems.

Carl Schlyter, member of the European Parliament representing the Swedish Green party, pointed out that the risks of nuclear energy "include the whole production chain, from the exploitation of uranium mines, to transport, waste treatment and plant security."

Yet another country, Italy, also suspended its decision to build new nuclear power plants. Italy, which phased out nuclear power in 1987 after the catastrophe of Chernobyl, is the only leading industrialised country without nuclear energy.

The catastrophe at Fukushima has foiled the Italian government's plans to build four new nuclear power plants before 2020. On Mar. 23, industry minister Paolo Roamni announced the suspension of the plans "for one year."

Oettinger hopes that "the stress tests will be something nearer to reality than the bank stress tests last year". He said he could not believe that all the 143 power stations in operation in the EU would be approved. "There might be a need for re-equipping some plants that might prove economically and technically impossible," Oettinger said.

In that context, environmental and energy experts are calling attention to several nuclear reactors located in seismic zones in some EU countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia.

In France, the country with the most critical share of nuclear power in the world, the government continues to reject a revision of its energy policy. But opposition to nuclear power has become very vocal since the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

On Mar. 25, the daily newspaper Libération devoted that day's edition to arguing for phasing out nuclear power. In its editorial, Libération called nuclear power in France "a national mythology," and claimed that France could get rid of nuclear energy "before 2050."

Numerous experts writing in the newspaper complained that despite the Fukushima disaster, the French government and society continue to close their eyes to the "obvious dangers of nuclear power", as Bernard Laponche, nuclear physicist and expert on energy policy, put it.

"We cannot simply accept that ever more frequent nuclear catastrophes are inevitable, given that allegedly ever more countries want to build nuclear power plants," Laponche told IPS. Instead, he said, "humankind should develop on the largest scale and shortest term possible the technology necessary to use all the renewable sources of energy we can command."

[Source: By Julio Godoy, IPS, Berlin, 01Apr11]

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