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Nuclear power plant in Dampierre, France
Friend or foe -- that's being debated in Prague

Atomic Split

Jefferson Chase
May 22, 2008

Ahead of a two-day European Nuclear Energy Forum meeting, DW-WORLD.DE spoke to both sides of the debate over whether Germany should stick to its total phase-out of nuclear power.


The European Nuclear Energy Forum was established in 2007 as a platform for discussing issues related to nuclear power -- with an eye toward arriving at common EU policy. It's starting its two-day second session on Thursday, May 22, in Prague.

While the European Commission has said that low-CO2 emitting nuclear energy should make a "substantial contribution" to the EU energy mix, Germany -- the most populous EU member state and largest contributor to the EU budget -- is committed to taking all its reactors offline by 2020.

That means there's plenty to talk about in the Czech Republic. One of the people at the table will be Santiago San Antonio, Director General of FORATOM, the main lobbying organization for the European nuclear power industry.

Traffic jam
The nuclear power industry says it can help reduce CO2 emissionsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"Nuclear power is needed if Europe wants to meet the objective of a low CO2 economy by the year 2020 and maintain competitive industry," San Antonio said. "The price of energy is increasing every day, and nuclear electricity can be produced at a very stable cost."

But not everyone is happy with the ENEF's pro-nuclear thrust.

"The meeting is again taking place with close to no representatives of civil society or non-governmental organizations," said Green member of the European Parliament Rebecca Harms, who will also be attending the meeting. "The [European] Commission originally promised a public and pluralistic debate on the future of nuclear energy, but the fact is that for the second time the commission is meeting especially with the representatives of the nuclear industry."

Fractious fission

Anti-nuclear protestors block a road in Parliament Square in London
Anti-nuclear activists say the EU has chosen the wrong strategyImage: AP

There is a dramatic nuclear divide in Europe. Germany, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands are among the countries that either have no nuclear power plants or in the process of phasing them out.

But France produces some 78 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, and there are plans to construct new reactors in many countries of formerly communist eastern Europe.

"The German government needs to take a strong position against the European Commission," Harms said. "The majority of European citizens, as shown by the most recent opinion polls of the European Commission itself, are against a nuclear future in the European Union."

Carnival float of Angela Merkel and Kurt Buck
Germany's grand coalition remains bound by the previous government's policyImage: AP

The nuclear power industry, however, is hoping that under conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel Germany will abandon the phase-out agreement, which was reached in 2000 under the previous Social Democratic-Green government.

"It's a kind of gentleman's agreement that could be changed at any time depending on the circumstances," San Antonio said. "I think it would be a mistake for Germany and some other nations to phase out nuclear energy when a barrel of oil costs has reached $130."

Oil futures in New York broke through $133 a barrel on Wednesday.

But maintaining the nuclear phase-out was one of the conditions for the current "grand coalition" between conservatives and Social Democrats, and Merkel's cabinet, for the time being, is sticking to that position.

Security versus savings?

Map of the world showing nuclear power plants
There are nuclear power plants all over the worldImage: INSC

The nuclear industry argues that without atomic reactors Europe won't be able to meet its targets for reducing CO2 emissions and will make itself dependent on foreign energy sources.

The current skyrocketing oil prices, and Russian threats in the past two years to reduce or cut off gas exports, feed into that argumentation.

"We import about 60 percent of energy from different countries, including Russia," San Antonio said. "And we have had some bad experiences in the past."

Anti-nuclear activists reject that logic, saying emphasis should be placed on renewable sources and energy conservation.

"What I can see after two years of heavy debate on climate change and the security of energy supplies is that, without putting the focus on energy savings and efficiency, no country in the world will be able to meet its climate goals," Harms said. "The role of nuclear energy, compared to the combination of efficiency and renewables, is rather small."

Power struggle

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso speaks with journalists
Barroso has been accused of being too nuclear-friendlyImage: AP

Anti-nuclear activists say that prominent EU figures have overstepped their authority in proclaiming a strategy that includes nuclear energy.

"European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs has stated publically that he sees the necessity of a nuclear strategy to combat climate change -- in complete contradiction to what the European Council has decided so far," Harms said.

Harms also criticized European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for backing an agreement with the IAEA and the European Atomic Energy Community to develop nuclear power in countries she said lacked the proper infrastructure.

Oil worker in Iraq
Both sides say Europe must break its dependence on foreign energy suppliesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

But the industry says it's high time to come up with a comprehensive European strategy that includes nuclear power.

"What we need in Europe is not just a nuclear energy policy, but an energy policy in general," San Antonio said. "The vision we have is that the future is a mixture of nuclear power and renewables.

"The other sources of energy are more expensive and produce more CO2," San Antonio added. "So they have more inconveniences than advantages."

Perhaps some day the ENEF will be a forum for reaching consensus across the nuclear divide in Europe.

But for the time being, the forum seems to be generating more heat than energy solutions.

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