Nuclear Power On The
Way Out Across Europe
By George Boehmer
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 power company.
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 lobby.
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 waste disposal.
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 summer.
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 millions annually.
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 Die Zeit.
There seems to be time. The International Atomic Energy Agency predicts it could take decades for western Europe to exit the nuclear industry.