Nuclear Power Debate Heats Up

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MADRID, Mar 25 (IPS) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown are about to agree on a new generation of nuclear power plants in London this week, and plan to export the technology to the rest of the world, according to unconfirmed reports.

Downing Street has refrained from commenting on news of the deal, which was reported last week by The Guardian, a British newspaper. The move would fly in the face of the opinions of Germany and Spain, which wish to gradually phase out all nuclear plants for safety reasons, and generate electricity from renewable sources instead.

The governments of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Chancellor Angela Merkel will be observing closely as Brown and Sarkozy meet at the Arsenal football club’s stadium in London on Thursday. The summit is an additional sign that France is drifting closer to the U.K. and away from Germany, say analysts.

Potential Anglo-French cooperation on nuclear power will reopen the debate within the European Union between those in favour of shutting down nuclear reactors and those who support nuclear power because of its allegedly lower environmental impact, compared with oil, and due to the sky-high prices of crude.

Zapatero, of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), who was reelected to a second four-year term on Mar. 9, said that his country would choose renewable energy sources rather than the "easy option" of nuclear energy, as long as the serious problems posed by radioactive waste disposal have not been solved.

The prime minister’s anti-nuclear position has not budged since the political agreement he signed with the Green Party prior to the legislative elections of 2004, in which he promised to gradually abandon nuclear energy in Spain in favour of safer, cleaner and cheaper alternatives.

Two months later, as prime minister, he announced that the Santa María Garoña nuclear power station in Burgos would be decommissioned by 2009, to be followed by the remaining seven plants, and said he would not authorise the construction of any new nuclear reactors.

The Garoña plant came on-stream in 1971, with an estimated useful life of 40 years. Its owners, the Endesa and Iberdrola power companies, now say that it can operate without risk for another 20 years and are asking the government not to close it down.

The two firms argue that nuclear energy is cleaner than fossil fuels, and point out that it is advisable not to depend on other countries for electricity generation.

The nuclear power plant at Guadalajara, which was older than the Garoña station, was closed in 2006. The PSOE negotiated an agreement to dismantle it with the then ruling Popular Party in 2002, while the socialists were in opposition, although they were in power when the time came to shut it down.

That precedent puts the extension requested by Endesa and Iberdrola out of the question.

The soaring oil prices are changing the minds of people in Europe who turned against nuclear power after the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, in 1986, and uncertainty about the energy model Europe should follow is increasing daily.

The debate is also happening among the oldest and most industrialised EU member states, which do not want slower growth, and are beginning to view nuclear energy as an alternative to the energy crisis.

Central and Eastern European countries are refusing to dismantle their old Soviet-era reactors by 2009, as requested by the EU, arguing that the nuclear plants ensure their energy supply.

Today it is the governments of Germany and Spain that are most firmly opposed to nuclear power plants.

Spain must resist the temptation of using nuclear power, and must opt for renewable energy sources, as its vast capacity for solar and wind energy would make it a world leader, Zapatero said in a radio interview two days before the recent elections.

But even within the PSOE there are those who differ with the prime minister, such as former Prime Minister Felipe González, former Industry Minister Juan Manuel Eguiagaray, EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Joaquín Almunia, and EU High Representative for Security and Foreign Policy, Javier Solana.

There is also division within the conservative PP, where a minority in favour of extending the nuclear moratorium coexists with party leader Mariano Rajoy, former Prime Minister José María Aznar and their followers, who favour a return to nuclear power.

Nuclear physics expert Guillermo Valverde said in a report for the Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies (FAES), headed by Aznar, that Spain’s high energy dependence and its Kyoto Protocol commitments underline the advantages of nuclear energy for the country.

The Kyoto Protocol requires industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, most of which arise from burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal.

The London summit meeting may reopen, at national and European levels, the discussion that was silenced by the tragedy at Chernobyl and also, possibly, for electoral reasons.

The general secretary of the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), José María Hidalgo, has said that he is in favour of the debate, which can be frank and uninhibited in Spain, now that the elections are over. (END/2008)

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