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Bright nuclear future?

March 31, 2011

The nuclear crisis in Japan has restarted debate in Germany about the risks of nuclear energy. But in Eastern Europe, politicians are saying reactors are safe, and few citizens are arguing.

Nuclear reactor in Paks, Hungary
Eastern Europe's nuclear plans are on trackImage: Transit-Archiv

For the most part, the official stance of governments in Eastern Europe regarding nuclear power goes something like this: "Atomic energy gives us energy independence, and our nuclear plants are safe."

A damaged reactor at Fukushima
Scenes of disaster from Fukushima aren't deterring Eastern EuropeImage: AP/Kyodo News

This position hasn't changed much since the start of the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant in Japan. Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey don't see any reason to suspend their plans to implement or expand their use of nuclear power.

In fact, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has campaigned strongly for nuclear power since 2007, warns against getting caught up in hysteria. He says Japan's reactor problems weren't caused by failures of the nuclear plants themselves, but resulted from the earthquake and tsunami. His Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, takes the argument one step further.

"In an earthquake, other things can be damaged as well," he said. "Bridges, for example. So should we stop building bridges?"

Weighing up the risks

Turkey - like Poland - is pushing hard to implement atomic energy. Unlike Poland, however, Turkey is a high-risk area for earthquakes. And, while Poland enjoys the support of 65 percent of its population for the implementation of nuclear energy, Turkey lacks that popular backing. According to a recent survey, around 60 percent of Turks are against the construction of two planned nuclear power plants.

Anti-nuclear demonstraters in front of the chancellory in Berlin
Germans are more vocal about their nuclear oppositionImage: AP

Romania is staying on track with its atomic energy plans. At the nuclear plant in Cernavoda, around 165 kilometers (100 miles) from Bucharest, two additional reactors are slated to be built. So far, there have been no reports of problems, although Romania is also considered earthquake territory.

A few days after the disaster in Japan, the European Commission said that the planned new reactors in Cernavoda must be made more earthquake-proof than those already in place. Lucian Biro, head of the Romanian Atomic Energy Agency, has no doubts about the security of Romania's nuclear plants

"According to the plans, the nuclear plant in Cernavoda can withstand an earthquake of 8.0 magnitude on the Richter scale," Biro said. "According to their own new tests, it could even withstand an 8.5. The instruments [for conducting the tests] weren't as precise 20 years ago as they are today."

Biro said it is understandable that the EU Commission wants to improve security standards after what happened in Japan. According to the Romanian Atomic Energy Agency, Cernavoda is among the 50 safest nuclear facilities in the world.

Avoiding a step backward

The Hungarian government considers nuclear energy to be the energy of the future, and thinks bailing out now would be a mistake. For some time, Budapest has been considering expanding the existing nuclear plant in the town of Paks, but there has been a lack of investors. The earth is known to move in Hungary, too, and the plant was modernized in the 1990s to increase its level of protection against earthquakes.

According to Czech authorities, reactors in Temelin are also built to withstand earthquakes. It's a cheap trick to get the public all worried since the Czech Republic is pretty safe from a tsunami, Prime Minister Petr Necas noted ironically.The Czech Republic, just like Slovakia, wants to build further reactors at existing plants.

Bumps in the road

However, the situation in Japan has put a kink in some Eastern European plans for nuclear power. In Bulgaria, plans to build a second nuclear plant in the earthquake-prone area of Belene, on the Danube River, are beginning to look less secure.

Last week Energy Minister Trajtscho Trajkov announced that he had asked for additional financial guarantees from Atomstroyexport, the Russian builder of the two reactors. But a few days later, Prime Minister Bojko Borissov put the brakes on the whole project for three months.

"We have spoken with the Russians," he said. "I hope that by Thursday, we can sign a memorandum on the three-month moratorium. Until then, all technical questions relating to earthquake safety and costs should be answered."

Krsko nuclear power plant in Slovenia
A power supply problem has shut down Krsko in SloveniaImage: picture-alliance / dpa

But the Bulgarian government is also considering a Plan B. The two reactors that have already been ordered could just be tacked on to the existing nuclear plant at Kosloduj. The Belene project has long been criticized by environmentalists, however the majority of Bulgarians have supported atomic energy. Even after the disaster in Japan, 51 percent of the population are still in favor of expanding atomic energy, while 45 percent are against.

Croatia doesn't have any nuclear plants of its own, but the Croatian company Hrvatska Elektroprivreda (HEP) owns half of the controversial plant Krsko in neighboring Slovenia. The site is around 40 kilometers from Zagreb and is considered especially earthquake-prone. The operators at Krsko, however, say the plant is built to withstand earthquakes of up to 7.2 in magnitude.

But even without a natural disaster, nuclear power plants aren't 100 percent accident-proof. Just last week, the plant at Krsko automatically shut itself down. A spokeswoman said the cause was a disruption of the power supply from Zagreb. She said there was no danger of a radioactive breach. Attempts to bring the plant online two days later failed, and a second attempt is planned for the end of the week.

Author: Blagorodna Grigorova / mz
Editor: Susan Houlton