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Nuclear persistence

April 23, 2011

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster, Eastern Europe is still clinging to nuclear power. The anti-nuclear movement is essentially non-existent, but experts say 'green' energy is still a viable alternative.

a sign warning about radiation
Nuclear power has few opponents in Eastern Europe

Don't panic, it's really not so bad!

This is a sentiment that has been repeated by leading politicians in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine since the start of the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

They view this neither as a second Chernobyl, nor as a reason to consider ending the use of nuclear power. In the eyes of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, for example, nuclear power is "absolutely safe."

In fact, the Kremlin is planning to more than double the number of nuclear power plants in Russia from the current 10 by 2020.

There were even plans to build a nuclear power plant in the Pacific Ocean. However, analysts say that since last month's powerful earthquake and tsunami, that idea is being revisited and the project may well be cancelled.

Russian nuclear plant safety questioned

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Medvedev has defended nuclear power's safety recordImage: AP

Belarus and Ukraine also see nuclear power as the way forward. Ukraine has four nuclear plants and there are plans for a Russian firm to build two more reactors at one of them.

The Russian energy firm Rosatom is to begin construction of the first nuclear plant in Belarus in the autumn. Belarusian officials signed the contract on March 15, just days after the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Tobias Münchmeyer, a nuclear expert at Greenpeace in Berlin, believes the difference between Western and Russian nuclear power plants in terms of safety is "much less" than widely believed.

According to Münchmeyer, most power plants in Eastern Europe are no less safe than their Western counterparts. But 11 Russian reactors, of the same type involved in the Chernobyl disaster, are an exception. These, Münchmeyer regards as "particularly dangerous."

Non-existent anti-nuclear movement

There is little public opposition to the Moscow, Kyiv and Minsk governments' plans to increase the use of nuclear power. There are no strong political parties with an ecological platform in any of these countries. Neither the Chernobyl disaster of 25 years ago nor the more recent events at Fukushima have sparked strong anti-nuclear movements.

Opinion polls show that public approval of the use of nuclear power in Russia has dropped from 74 percent to 54 percent over the past year. But this still leaves a majority of Russians who continue to support its use. Public sentiment is widely believed to be similar in Ukraine and Belarus.

Volodymyr Omelchenko, an energy expert at the Razumkov Centre, a Kyiv-based think tank, says this is largely due to economic concerns.

"The people here have other problems," he said. "More than half of the population are practically fighting for survival."

Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear disaster everImage: picture alliance/dpa

High radiation levels

Support for nuclear power persists, despite the fact that the effects of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl are still being felt. Münchmeyer recently visited an area along the border between Ukraine and Belarus where there are still higher-than-normal levels of radioactivity. He and his colleagues tested 100 samples of foodstuffs, like mushrooms or wild berries.

"Of these 100 samples 40-50 were okay, 20-30 had significantly heightened levels approaching the legal limit," said Münchmeyer. Of the other 20, some were "well above the legal limit."

But most shocking for the Greenpeace activist was the high level of radioactivity in local milk, which he said they found to be "as much as 16 times higher than the level considered safe for children."

Münchmeyer described the situation there as a "creeping catastrophe." Any impression that the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster are limited to a 30-kilometer (19-mile) exclusion zone around the ill-fated reactor is simply false, he said.

A swift end?

Russian and Ukrainian politicians have repeatedly claimed that there is no alternative to nuclear power. But Münchmeyer disagrees, arguing that Moscow could do away with the use of nuclear power relatively quickly, as it currently accounts for just 17 percent of the electricity produced in Russia. This could be replaced, he said, with power generated by renewable sources or gas.

The situation in Ukraine is quite different. The four nuclear plants there account for 48 percent of the electricity produced in the country. But at the same time, the country produces an excess of power and exports what it doesn't use itself.

Münchmeyer says it too could do away with the use of nuclear energy if the political will existed. Ukraine has in recent weeks announced plans to reassess its nuclear program with a view to possibly increasing the use of renewable energy sources even more than previously planned.

The big problem that would need to be solved if any of these countries decided to do away with the use of nuclear plants is electricity use. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are all among the world's worst offenders when it comes to wasting electricity, Münchmeyer said.

As long as this continues to be the case, any move away from nuclear energy will be difficult to implement.

Author: Roman Goncharenko / pfd
Editor: Martin Kuebler