Friday, October 14, 2005

Europe pioneers renaissance of nuclear power

Europe pioneers renaissance of nuclear power |

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/14/05
London — Nuclear energy — its image sullied for decades by scary reactor accidents and the stubborn problems of securing radioactive material — is poised for a comeback in the United States, thanks to the soaring cost of fossil fuels.

The energy bill signed this summer by President Bush included substantial subsidies designed to get new U.S. nuclear reactors up and running for the first time in more than 30 years.

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Yet concerns over safety, waste disposal and proliferation of weapons persist. Won't more nuclear power only add up to a more dangerous world?

To see how a possible nuclear renaissance in the United States might play out, one needs only to look at Europe, where a reliance on nuclear energy has been building for years.

France generates more than 78 percent of its electricity in nuclear reactors, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The figure is above 30 percent for seven other European OECD members, including Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.

By contrast, about 20 percent of U.S. electricity is nuclear, an amount likely to drop to 15 percent by 2020 as old plants are taken out of commission.

Construction has begun in Finland on the first of a new generation of reactors designed to alleviate many of the concerns that arose after the accidents at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 and at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.

The new plants are designed to be simpler and more rugged. They employ "passive" methods to shut down in an emergency that are based on physical phenomena such as gravity or temperature resistance rather than engineered parts. Proponents say they virtually eliminate the danger of a meltdown of the nuclear core.

The new reactors also contain safety features not found in older U.S. plants, such as water-filled basins that would capture and cool the core if a meltdown did occur.

"In terms of safety, the reactor being built in Finland is the only reactor in the world in which the consequences of a core melt accident would be restricted to the plant itself, thanks to the core catcher and other features," said Anne Lauvergeon, chairman of the executive board at Areva, a French-owned nuclear engineering firm that's helping to build the Finnish plant.

"And, with its extremely robust containment, it's the reactor with the highest resistance against an airplane crash worldwide," she said.

Finally, the new reactors are supposed to produce much less nuclear waste — perhaps only one-tenth of that produced by existing reactors.

Less opposition

Even a growing number of environmentalists are warming to the notion of nuclear energy as they balance its hazards against the evidence that fossil fuels may cause severe damage to the planet through global warming.

Bruno Comby, president of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, a group based near Paris that provides information on nuclear energy and the environment, said the United States could learn much from France in the area of nuclear energy.

Comby said the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel — a chemical process that removes fissionable uranium and plutonium for reuse in reactors — "greatly minimizes both the volume, the toxicity and the life span of the waste." Britain, France, Japan, Russia and India all reprocess used nuclear fuel, he said.

In the United States, one of the biggest objections to reprocessing is that it increases the availability of plutonium, a tiny amount of which could be used to create a nuclear weapon.

Comby said that proliferation concerns could be minimized by making verifiable deals with maturing countries.

"These deals must offer countries safe and non-proliferant nuclear civilian reactors in exchange for a strong commitment on their side not to develop nuclear arms — and their acceptance of being controlled," he said.

'Bomb factories'

Despite support from the environmental group, a large part of the world's green movement still lines up against nuclear power.

"Nuclear plants are potential bomb factories," said Jim Green, nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth Australia, a federation of local environmental groups.

He also said that nuclear power is no solution to climate change concerns.

"A doubling of global nuclear power output by 2050 would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just 5 percent — less than one-tenth of the reduction required," he said.

Yet the growing need for power already has pushed many industrialized nations to rely more on nuclear energy to generate electricity.

Studies show that global electricity consumption is expected to double by 2030, even as easily obtainable oil and gas supplies dwindle.

In Britain, where nuclear power generates about 20 percent of the country's electricity, Prime Minister Tony Blair told Labor Party members last month that he is considering committing the country to a new generation of nuclear power plants.

Bernard Ingham, who leads a British group known as the Supporters of Nuclear Energy, said that Britain and other European governments must start doing more to foot the bill for new nuclear reactors.

He also said the United States should learn its lessons on nuclear energy only from the Finns and the French, where the new reactors are either under construction or are being developed.

The former press secretary for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said most of the rest of Europe has been ignoring the advantages of nuclear energy for years while becoming increasingly dependent on foreign gas.

"The best thing for the United States to do is to ignore most of Europe because of its pathetic political correctness and to make sure it is as self-sufficient in energy as possible," Ingham said. "That can only be achieved by a substantial nuclear contribution.

"There isn't much point in waging war against terrorists if you depend on Islamic oil supplies to keep your economy in business," he said.


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