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Nuclear power is on the march across parts of EuropeImage: AP

Atomic Renaissance

Jennifer Abramsohn
June 20, 2007

Thanks to increased demand for energy that does not emit greenhouse gases, the nuclear power industry is seeing a surge in popularity -- especially in former Communist countries.


European pledges to combat global warming appear to be giving nuclear energy a boost. Even some countries that have moved to phase out nuclear reactors have once more taken up the debate over atomic power, which advocates promote as being much cleaner than traditional energy sources because it produces very low levels of toxic CO2.

The change might come as something of a surprise to anyone who has swum in the tide of overwhelmingly anti-nuke public opinion for the past two decades, and especially after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 showed the reality of the flaws of lax nuclear safety.

Yet the mood appears to be shifting, prompted at least in part by European pledges to cut carbon emissions and slow global warming. Especially eager to jump aboard the pro-nukes bandwagon are ex-Soviet countries, whose rapid growth and long-standing dependence on Russian natural gas makes them extra-keen to take control of their energy markets.

New Member States are Key

Five of the 10 countries that joined the then 15-nation European Union in its 2004 expansion -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia -- have operating reactors. Bulgaria was made to shut down two Soviet-era reactors as a condition for EU entry despite noisy opposition. But its controversial plans to build a new reactor in Belene, near the Danube, are moving ahead. The country has already signed with Russian company Atomstroyexport to build the new plant.

Romania and the Czech republic also have plans to build new reactors. While construction has begun on plants in Romania, the Czech government is holding off on similar moves for the next four years due to the presence of the Greens in the new coalition.

Hungary and Slovakia are also discussing adding additional units, while Baltic States, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, have signed an agreement committing to the construction of a new plant at Ignalina in Lithuania. Poland has also signed a co-operation agreement with Lithuania.

The Ukraine, not in the EU, got almost 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power last year. It is considering adding up to 11 new nuclear plants by 2030.

Atomkraftwerk Paks in Ungarn
Paks Nuklear Power Plant in HungaryImage: Transit-Archiv

Sami Tulonen, a spokesman for EU nuclear trade association Foratom, acknowledged that eastern-bloc countries have "more advanced discussions" of building new power plants. This, he said, could be attributed to several factors.

"In the new EU states there is more political and public support for nuclear power," Tulonen said. And as a result of EU entry, "there is very strong economic growth in the region, and need for more electricity capacity to meet demand."

Add to that the fact that so much of the East's current power comes from "very dirty" sources like coal, and the increasing intolerance for greenhouse gases, and its easy to understand how the tide of public opinion can turn toward nuclear energy, Tulonen said.

'They want no part of Russian domination'

"They have to meet the Kyoto goals, and they know their economies are growing, yet they need more nuclear power to meet the low carbon demand," he added.

Under the 1997 Kyoto protocol, 39 industrialized nations agreed to cut emissions of six greenhouse gases to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Finally, observers note that former Soviet states are eager to be less dependent on Russia's energy monopolies in the region.

"They already know what its like to be dominated by Russia, and they want no part of trading political domination for economic domination by increasing their dependence on Russia oil and gas," wrote pro-nuke activist Rod Adams on his blog, atomicinsight.

Growth in western Europe, too

Foratom's Tulonen warns that it is false to see the movement as clearly one of East versus West, however.

"There is also a lot of discussion about nuclear new build among old (EU) member states," he said, noting that Finland is currently building the first nuclear reactor to go up in the EU in the last 15 years.

France has serious plans to build, and discussions on amping up nuclear energy in Sweden and Belgium are ongoing. Even Britain is considering nuclear options, he said.

"Reactor-wise, it is difficult to say where the widest growth will be in five years," Tulonen said.

Anti-Atomkraft Demo
In 1986, crowds demonstrated against an atomic plant in HamburgImage: AP

Currently, 30 percent of the EU's total electricity production comes from nuclear sources; that number is as high as 80 percent in nuke-friendly countries like France and Belgium. Germany gets 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources.

EU forum on nukes

Meanwhile, on June 15 the EU announced the formation of an EU Nuclear Energy Forum, which will meet twice a year in an effort to "lay the groundwork for a structured, open debate, about this energy source, without taboos," EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said in a press release.

Foratom's Tulonen says he hopes the forum will be used to "lay a roadmap for nuclear investment, in order to support the nuclear renaissance."

Opponents of nuclear power, however, argue that the atomic industry is simply using a cynical ploy to exploit people who are worried about global warming by stressing the supposedly low levels of CO2 produced by nuclear plants.

Cynical ploy?

"The nuclear industry has gotten wise to the fact that people are interested in this … they're trying to sell the idea that nuclear power is the clean alternative," said Sonja Meister, a climate and energy campaigner for grassroots environmental group Friends of the Earth.

Not only is it a ploy, Meister argues, "its just not true. They say nuclear power has no CO2 emissions, but if you look at the whole production cycle -- the emissions produced during uranium mining, building the plant, there is a great deal of CO2 produced."

Galerie EPA EU Erweiterung Litauen Atomkraftwerk Ignalina
The EU is closing this plant in Lithuania, but a replacement is plannedImage: EPA PHOTO / AFI / GATIS DIEZINS

Moreover, when cost comparisons are made between nuclear and other types of energy sources, safety and potential cleanup costs are almost always ignored, Meister said.

"Nuclear power plants can never be safe," she said. "There is always a danger of human error, even if they are a bit more secure or efficient. And the general problem of what to do with nuclear waste remains, so it doesn't matter if they are a little safer."

The question remains if it would be possible to phase out nuclear energy and still meet projected emissions cuts in Europe. According to Meister, the key lies in investing in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency.

"There is no valid reason for nuclear energy," Meister said. "You can save 10 times more CO2 emissions by investing in energy efficiency than in nuclear power… Continuing to invest in nuclear energy is just economically insane," she said.

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