Nuclear power has the reputation of being inexpensive and safe. But critics point out that this energy form has many disadvantages, too. The environmental implications also need to be considered.
The German nuclear power plant in Biblis has shown some defects
Nuclear power is a sensitive and emotional issue, not only in Germany. With the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl reactor catastrophe on April 26, 1986, the topic has once again entered the public eye.
"An advantage of nuclear power is its large energy security," said Christopher Weßelmann, editor-in-chief of the trade magazine ATW Atomwirtschaft from the German nuclear sector.
Energy security is one of the three factors by which the International Energy Agency (IEA) measures energy policy. For the IEA -- the energy forum for 26 industrialized countries -- economic competitiveness and environmental protection also play a role.
"Nuclear power plants can operate for several decades and there is sufficient uranium available for the next 60 years," Wesselmann said.
Those uranium deposits already discovered but not yet developed would even last for up to 400 years, he said.
But Henrik Paulitz from the German branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) said 60 years of uranium availability were too amply calculated. Yet, 20 years more or less was irrelevant.
"Uranium is an endless resource," Paulitz said.
Long-term storage needed for high-level radioactive waste
"A structural decision for nuclear power affects entire generations," Paulitz said. Uranium waste radiated for several hundred thousand years. For Paulitz, the fact that the generation of nuclear power created less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, such as oil or gas, carried little weight.
So far, there is no long-term storage in the world for high-level radioactive waste. In the German city of Gorleben, a facility is eventually supposed to be established.
The Loviisa plant in Finland could soon find long-term storage nearby
According to Wesselmann, Finland is also progressing in exploring and test drilling for a long-term storage site. Sweden, Switzerland and France have at least begun to think about suitable locations, Wesselmann said.
"In the next 10 to 20 years, the first long-term storage in Europe will take up operations," Wesselmann said. The abandoned iron mine Konrad near Salzgitter in Lower Saxony is earmarked for low-level radioactive waste. Last month, a high court in Lüneburg dismissed a case by affected citizens and communities.
A nuclear catastrophe can be limited
The safety of nuclear plants is also a decisive factor in this type of power.
"There is no 100 percent safety in nuclear power plants," Wesselmann said. "But they can be devised in a manner so that possible consequences of a catastrophic accident would remain limited to the plant."
Flamanville will be home to a new generation of nuclear power plants in France
There are 444 nuclear power plants operating worldwide, 204 of them in Europe. Currently, 23 new plants are being built, five of which in Europe: three in Russia and one each in Romania and Finland. Plans for new plants exist in France, Britain, the Netherlands and the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania).
Worldwide, nuclear power makes up for 16 percent of power generation. In Europe, it is significantly more, about one-third. In Germany, the share in 2005 was more than 26 percent, according to the German Institute for Economic Research.
Is nuclear power really as inexpensive as it's said to be?
The efficiency of a nuclear power plant also plays a role in how much demand there is for its generated energy. The nuclear lobby calls nuclear energy itself one of the most inexpensive possibilities for energy supply.
"In Germany, nuclear power is highly privileged and subsidized," IPPNW's Paulitz said. "Uranium can be obtained tax-free, the risk reserve is tax-free and the insurance coverage is inadequate and therefore too cheap."
How does energy get into these power lines?
According to a report by the Prognos consultancy group, only 0.1 percent of the expected claim is insured. The general public has to come up for the final storage of nuclear waste.
"These are all costs of nuclear energy, which are not considered in the price of nuclear power," Paulitz said. Instead of a few cents per kilowatt hour in generating costs, the price would have to be over two euros ($2.45), if these other costs were included, he said.
Efficient energy use is needed
For Paulitz, the solution for the energy supply lies in significantly saving energy. The IEA also assumes a savings potential of up to 20 nuclear power plants, spread across the 30 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In addition, an efficient use of energy could reduce worldwide demand by 15 percent, according to the IEA. Renewable energies such as sun, wind or water have to finally be seriously promoted and used, said Paulitz.
At least the share of nuclear energy in Europe will not change significantly in the next 20 years.
"One-third of the energy mix is a good size," said Wesselmann. Paulitz also doesn't expect any major changes in the European nuclear sector.