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Old fears resurface in Europe

Nuclear safety debate revived

By Angela Charlton
Associated Press / March 15, 2011

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PARIS — Switzerland said yesterday it was freezing plans to build new nuclear power plants, Germany raised questions about its nuclear future, and opposition to atomic reactor construction mounted from Turkey to South Africa.

Fears about nuclear safety that took a generation to overcome after the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are resurfacing around the globe in the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear emergency. They are casting new doubt on a controversial energy source that has seen a resurgence in recent years amid worries over volatile oil prices and global warming.

“Europe has to wake up from its Sleeping Beauty slumber’’ about nuclear safety, Austria’s environment minister, Nikolaus Berlakovich, told reporters in Brussels. He suggested an EU-wide stress test for nuclear plants, much like European banks have been tested for their ability to cope with financial shocks.

Yet some analysts and officials say those fears are exaggerated, given the exceptional nature of Japan’s earthquake and ensuing tsunami. The Japanese disaster may slow the push for more nuclear plants but appears unlikely to stop it, given the world’s fast-growing energy needs.

The governments of Russia, China, Poland, and even earthquake-prone Chile said they are sticking to their plans to build more reactors. Spain warned against hasty decisions.

Japan’s nuclear plant explosions come as the US government looks to expand its nuclear energy industry by offering companies tens of billions in financial backing. Administration officials said the United States would seek lessons from the Japanese crisis but said the events in Japan would not diminish the US commitment to nuclear power.

“It remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan,’’ White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “When we talk about reaching a clean energy standard, it is a vital part of that.’’

Switzerland ordered a freeze on new plants or replacements “until safety standards have been carefully reviewed and if necessary adapted,’’ Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said. The decision put on hold the construction of nuclear power stations at three sites approved by Swiss regulatory authorities.

Switzerland now has five nuclear power reactors that produce about 40 percent of the country’s energy needs. It also has nuclear research reactors.

In Germany, the government said it is suspending for three months a decision to extend the life of its nuclear power plants. That also means that two older nuclear power plants will be taken off the grid shortly — at least for now — pending a full safety investigation, Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.

A previous government decided to shut all 17 German nuclear plants, but Merkel’s administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average 12 years.

“The pictures from Japan show us that nothing, even the worst, is unthinkable,’’ EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio.

The European Union called a meeting today of nuclear safety authorities to assess Europe’s preparedness in case of a nuclear emergency. Individual EU members — including Britain, Bulgaria, and Finland — also urged a nuclear safety review.

Meanwhile, opposition voices rose up in Turkey to renounce or scale back nuclear expansion plans. And antinuclear groups staged rallies around France, the world’s most nuclear-dependent country, as the government sought to reassure the public that risks remain minimal.

Environmental group Earthlife Africa said it wants South Africa, the only African country with an existing nuclear plant, to follow Germany’s example. But South African officials want to expand nuclear power.

German popular opinion continues to favor nonnuclear sources of energy. But elsewhere in Europe, people have become increasingly open to nuclear power as memories fade of the accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine — the world’s worst nuclear accident, 25 years ago next month. Eastern Europe sees nuclear energy as a way of gaining a measure of independence from Russia’s burgeoning gas and oil empire.

Statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency show there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, with 65 new facilities under construction. Construction last year was started on 14 new reactors — in China, Russia, India, Japan, and Brazil.

Boosters have argued that new-design reactors pose fewer safety risks, and that nuclear-produced electricity does not emit the pollution that causes global warming.

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