- FRANKFURT, Germany - Europe once viewed nuclear power as the answer to
its energy problems, but now it's starting to look elsewhere as environmental
activists gain prominence in national governments.
- Leading the crusade is Germany, where
the ecology-minded Greens party just became part of the federal government
for the first time. Italy, Sweden and Switzerland also are succumbing to
Green pressure to shut down nuclear plants and reactors.
- The Greens' argument: Nuclear energy
produces lethal wastes that pose centuries of danger to future generations
because there is no sure way to render it harmless. Not to mention the
danger of a meltdown.
- The anti-nuclear movement has strong
roots in Europe, fed by the anti-missile sentiment of the 1980s and alarm
over the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine, which spewed
radiation over all of Europe.
- Now even the nuclear power industry concedes
that Germany " and with it Europe " has crossed a threshold in
the no-nukes fight. The September election brought to power a left-leaning
government committed to shutting down the nation's 19 nuclear plants.
- "It would be senseless to discuss
new reasons for using atomic energy, since the voters have apparently chosen
to get out," said Hans-Dieter Harig, who heads the Preussen-Elektra
- The Greens still face an uphill fight
in countries like Britain, where 12 nuclear plants generate 30 percent
of the country's electricity and employ about 30,000 people.
- The same goes for France, western Europe's
most nuclear-dependent country. It draws 78 percent of its power from 41
reactors and shows no sign of reversing course.
- And in former communist eastern Europe,
which depends on Soviet-designed reactors for a big chunk of its power,
new nuclear plants are still being built.
- But the tide is definitely turning.
- The new tone in Germany was set almost
immediately after the election. Environment Minister Juergen Trittin "
a Green " announced his goal of shutting down "as many as possible"
of Germany's nuclear reactors "as soon as possible." One is already
idle for suspected safety problems.
- To be sure, the German government's planned
"atomic exit" faces heated resistance from the nation's nuclear
- The German Atom Forum, which represents
the nation's nuclear industry, says its plants are already environment-friendly,
supplying about a third of Germany's electricity without the air pollution
of coal or oil-burning plants.
- Power companies say they will sue the
German government for "double-digit billions" in damages for
lost investment if they are forced to prematurely close nuclear plants.
- The industry argues that licenses granted
when official German policy promoted the use of nuclear energy cannot simply
be revoked now that the political climate has changed.
- The industry wants to allow current nuclear
plants to operate for their full working lives " meaning 40 more years.
- The Greens favor a phase-out over five
to 10 years. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a Social Democrat, has spoken
of a span of around 20 years.
- He plans to personally lead talks beginning
Jan. 26 with the power industry to work out a timetable that avoids damage
claims against the government and also resolves the question of nuclear
- If no agreement is reached within a year,
the government intends to draw up its own legislative plan. Even before
that, it plans to rewrite German laws promoting nuclear energy.
- Environmentalists have already had some
success in other European countries.
- Austria banned nuclear energy in 1978,
leaving a plant then worth $4 million completed but never used. Italian
voters approved an anti-nuclear energy policy in 1987, shutting down three
operating plants and stopping construction on a fourth.
- Sweden, which gets almost half its electricity
from 12 reactors, agreed in 1997 under pressure from the Greens and its
nuclear-free Danish neighbors to start shutting down nuclear plants last
- The first reactor at the Barsebaeck plant
was to have been turned off in July. But the operator, Sydkraft AB, is
fighting the closure order in court.
- After the German election, Switzerland
announced it would start drawing up plans to shut down its four nuclear
plants, which provide 40 percent of the Alpine country's electricity.
- But it set no deadline. And to the dismay
of environmentalists, the Swiss also announced they were extending the
life of one nuclear plant by 10 years to 2012.
- By forcing the nuclear plants off line,
the Greens hope to encourage utilities to invest more in renewable sources
such as wind, hydro and solar energy.
- Industry, though, argues alternative
energy sources are impractical and economically unfeasible " at least
for years or even decades to come.
- Germany cannot increase use of coal because
of pollution reduction goals it is committed to. Natural gas, which is
less polluting, is a possibility, but gas-burning plants would have to
be expanded or new ones built.
- That means Germany could end up importing
power from its nuclear neighbor, France, which has more than enough atomic
power plants it can crank up to meet the demand.
- But the French are worried they will
lose money elsewhere.
- The French are involved in designing
a next-generation reactor with Germany's Siemens. France also reprocesses
Germany's nuclear waste for storage at La Hague " a contract worth
- German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer,
also a Green, said nuclear energy was one of the first things he discussed
with French Premier Lionel Jospin during a visit to Paris.
- "We will do everything to prevent
unnecessarily burdening French interests," Fischer told the weekly
- There seems to be time. The International
Atomic Energy Agency predicts it could take decades for western Europe
to exit the nuclear industry.