Brussels wants Europe to drop nuclear 'taboos'

Monday, May 26, 2008

EUOBSERVER / FOCUS - Europe's top energy official has called for a fresh discussion of the pros and cons of nuclear energy "without taboos."

Energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs wrote on Friday (16 May) in his blog that "Use of nuclear energy ... would increase our energy independence and supply security as well as contribute to the limitation of CO2 emissions."

"Energy efficiency, renewables and sustainable biofuels have all a very important and growing contribution to make for a sustainable energy policy," he added.

"However, for the production of base-load energy at competitive prices, nuclear energy is currently the main low-carbon source in many EU member states."

The commissioner went on to offer a robust defence of nuclear energy as part of Europe's future energy strategy.

"Currently, nuclear energy provides more than a third of EU electricity. It has proven to be a stable, reliable source, relatively shielded from price fluctuations when compared to the oil and gas markets.

"Conventional nuclear energy is essentially free from CO2 emissions and ... fulfils an important requirement of all three pillars of the EU energy policy, which are competitiveness, security of supply and sustainability."

The commissioner conceded that before Europe as a whole could move forward with a pro-nuclear strategy, the European public would have to change its mind about nuclear safety, as opposition remains substantial in many member states.

"Political and public acceptance is a prerequisite for the further development of nuclear energy," he said. "The European citizens' concerns about the safety of nuclear installations and the safe management of radioactive waste must be properly addressed."

At present, just 20 percent of Europeans favour the controversial energy source, according to a 2007 Eurobarometer survey. By contrast, some 80 percent of Europeans support greater use of solar energy.

Opposition historically is a product of public fears about the safety of the technology. These fears stem from the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union in 1986, and even the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in the 1970. However, environmental critics tend to focus more on worries about the ability to store radioactive waste and the potential for severe radioactive contamination to a surrounding region.

Opinion mixed
But opinion is not uniform. Sweden, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Finland all have majorities in favour of nuclear energy.

Austria on the other hand is home to the most keenly anti-nuclear public, with 80 percent opposed. The country has no operational nuclear power plants and, in 1997, the Austrian parliament voted unanimously to maintain the country's anti-nuclear policy.

In 1994, the Netherlands voted to phase out nuclear power, although implementation has been repeatedly delayed. In mid-May, the Dutch economy minister, Maria van der Hoeven, said her country may have to consider nuclear power if it is to meet European carbon emissions targets.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Germany also agreed to a gradual shutting down of its nuclear power stations but the decision continues to cause strong differences between the two main political parties in the country.

On Friday, the commissioner is to travel to Prague for the second meeting of the European Nuclear Energy Forum (ENEF), launched by the commission in late 2007 as a platform for debate on nuclear energy in Europe and to promote a friendlier image to the European public.

Although nuclear policy remains the responsibility of EU member states, the European Commission is becoming increasingly bold in its championing of nuclear power.

The commissioner's blog posting echoes the words of commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, who sent a letter to the first meeting of ENEF last November, saying: "In this context I really believe that there is a need for a full and frank debate about nuclear energy."

Delicately tip-toeing around the issue of jurisdiction, Mr Barroso said: "It is not the EU's role, or indeed the role of the commission, to decide for member states whether they use nuclear energy or not.

"But it is - in my view - not surprising that we are witnessing a renewed interest of nuclear energy at global level."

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