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Britain tells the rest of Europe not to rush to nuclear judgment

As the Japanese nuclear crisis continues, the British energy minister has warned European neighbors not to rush to judgment over the future of nuclear power.

Sellafield nuclear power plant in England

Environmentalists are calling for a nuclear moratorium

The British energy minister, Chris Huhne, has warned other European countries not to make decision about nuclear power too quickly in the light of events in Japan.

He told lawmakers in the British parliament that while Britain would undertake a safety review which would incorporate potential dangers from natural disasters, hasty action was not necessary.

In an apparent reference to Swiss and German actions to impose an moratorium on nuclear power plants and in the case of Germany, to close down seven aging plants, Huhne said he had asked Britain's chief nuclear inspector, Mike Weightman, to report if any lessons could be learnt from events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant.

"I thought it was really crucial that we should base any public debate on reality and on the facts and not on a load of supposition, which appears to be a risk, not least in some other countries at the moment," Huhne said during testimony to the House of Commons Energy Select Committee.

He also drew attention to the fact that the strongest earthquake suffered by Britain was 130 thousand times weaker than the one which hit Japan and that Britain had never experienced the terror of a tsunami.

Calls to suspend nuclear activity

However anti-nuclear campaigners have called for Britain to follow the example of some of its European neighbors and announce a moratorium on any nuclear plant activity.

Dungeness nuclear power station

Many of Britain's nuclear plants have been decommissioned orr face closure

The anti-nuclear campaign group CND concedes that Britain is not likely to be subjected to such terrible natural disasters, but insists that issues such as climate change and subsequent rising sea levels must be taken into account. In addition, there was always the possibility of human error, and the issues surrounding the disposal of toxic nuclear waste were not going to disappear.

CND head Kate Hudson said nuclear accidents, while infrequent, do occur from time to time. She said, "Maybe it's a once-in-a-generation event. You know, it's 25 years from Chernobyl and then some more since Three Mile Island but no matter how infrequent it is, it does seem to be something that does occur from time to time, and we do not want anyone to have to suffer from that and from the terrible consequences of radiation poisoning."

At least six of Britain's nine nuclear stations are due to be closed by 2015 and the government hopes that private investors will step in to replace them with new plants. It says it's concerned that there could be an energy gap between new plants being built and old ones being closed.

The British Government wants to attract private investment for up to ten new-generation plants and government experts are currently studying two rival designs with a view to getting these projects to the building stage within the next few years.

Outdated technology

The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was built in the 1960s and was coming to the end of its operational life. According to Stuart Nathan, features editor at "The Engineer" magazine, who has been writing about Britain's nuclear industry for a decade, the technology used in that plant would be unrecognizable in today's nuclear plants.

"I think it would be only natural for something like Fukishima to make people more concerned," he told Deutsche Welle, "but the industry really has changed from the way it was and safety is very much in mind, particularly with new reactor buildings."

Sizewell B power station

Modern nuclear power stations are said to be safer than the old ones

Nathan added that modern plants, with their pressurized cooling systems and advanced safety features offer as much reassurance in terms of safety as a nuclear plant can.

However he does think it likely that events in Japan will lengthen the UK Government's review of the competing nuclear plant designs.

While Japan's aging Fukushima plant and the advanced generation of new power stations planned by Britain differ greatly, concerns about the incident within the British government go beyond the unfolding human drama.

Huhne admitted to the Energy Committee that the incident may affect the appetite of private investors for nuclear power. Billions of euros of private investment will be needed to replace Britain's aging nuclear power plants.

Author: Catherine Drew, London
Editor: Michael Lawton

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