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Europe weighs nuclear risk

Gavin Hewitt | 15:51 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

The public came to accept nuclear power stations because the risks were thought to be small. Voters accepted reassurances. Experts were believed. The fail-safe systems were thought to be in place.

After the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 the world was haunted by a China syndrome. Meltdown was the stuff of horror movies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel giving a speech about nuclear power

Time soothed away the fear. Long-standing opponents of nuclear power were won over. The world needed low-carbon energy sources and nuclear equalled clean energy. Longstanding sceptic-nations like Sweden recently overturned a 30-year-old ban on building nuclear plants. Across Europe and Asia, nuclear power stations were being built.

But in a deadly shudder that has overwhelmed many of the safety mechanisms at Fukushima, the nuclear debate has changed. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was a "decisive moment" for the world.

An old truth re-emerged. Accidents happen. The risk equation has altered.

So Switzerland today has suspended plans to build new nuclear plants and replace others. Three new sites had been approved. The government wants new safety measures in place that focus on seismic activity and the cooling systems. Switzerland's five reactors produce 40% of the country's energy.

Nuclear power has never been popular in Germany. There were demonstrations again at the weekend over a decision to extend the life of 10 atomic power stations. Controversially, Angela Merkel had decided to delay closing them for 12 years beyond their original shut-down date.

Protesters in Germany hold hands in a demonstration against nuclear power

That plan has now been suspended and Germany may be on its way to being nuclear free after 2020. The swiftness of today's decision reflects the fact that elections are due shortly in Baden-Wuerttemberg. The German chancellor sensed, with the events in Japan, that her policy was no longer sustainable.

The Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich has called for a series of stress tests to see if Europe's 143 nuclear power stations can withstand earthquakes. There is likely to be a safety review across Europe.

The French are being more cautious. After the United States, they are the second biggest nuclear power generators. Italy, which is prone to earthquakes, was considering new reactors. Almost certainly any plans there will stall.

The Russians, however, seem undaunted. Their plan is to increase electricity generation from nuclear plants from 16% now to 25% by 2030. That will involve building 40 new reactors.

But the Japanese earthquake has changed the risk equation. Low carbon economies almost certainly will have to turn more towards solar, wind and gas. The problem was always that relying on them alone would never enable Europe to meet its ambitious carbon-reducing targets.

Now nuclear will no longer be seen as the automatic way forward.


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