Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Change in Climate - Newsweek

A Change in Climate - Newsweek: International Editions - MSNBC.com


By William Underhill
Newsweek International
Feb. 6, 2006 issue - Martin Landtman is thinking big. As project director of Finland's next nuclear-power station, he's responsible for his country's largest-ever industrial investment. Over the next four years his work force will pour 250,000 cubic meters of reinforced concrete—enough to build 5,000 apartment blocks—at the Olkiluoto site on the Baltic coast. The goal: a structure tough enough to withstand a direct hit from the world's largest airliner or to contain a meltdown of its radioactive core. But his biggest challenge may have already passed. The project—the first new nuclear-power station in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986—now has majority support among his fellow Finns.

A nuclear plant with popular backing? And in one of those planet-loving Nordic states? Look no further for proof that the nuclear industry is losing its bugaboo status. Among voters, new anxieties have emerged to offset the old safety fears. Mounting evidence of climate change has refocused attention on an energy source that won't soil the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the cost of gas and oil is soaring. Europeans don't want to be dependent on supplies from Russia, especially after Moscow's recent show of arm-twisting with Ukraine. Japan wants to wean itself off of energy imports. U.S. citizens are fed up with relying on Middle Eastern states for their energy.
Nuclear power is increasingly seen as the only energy source that can square the needs of the environment and industry. More research is necessary before renewable sources will be able to provide energy in sufficient quantities at a realistic price. Olkiluoto's output alone will meet 10 percent of all Finland's requirements. Says Landtman: "We just can't hide from the problems anymore."
The turnaround is perhaps most startling in Europe. Most citizens remain wary, but a rethink is underway in almost every European country—even those most traditionally hostile to nuclear power. In Italy, which junked its nuclear program after a referendum 18 years ago, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi talks openly of reversing policy. In Germany, where the new coalition government is free of members of the Greens, conservative politicians are cautiously debating the state's legal pledge to phase out nuclear power by 2020. A recent poll found that more than one in three Swedes today supports nuclear power, even though their own government is committed to closing down the industry.
Some countries, like Finland, are going further with plans to build new nuclear plants, not just to retain the old. Poland is scheduled to begin design work this year on two reactors, the first in its history. "The building of any gas plants in Poland right now would be madness," says government spokesman Roman Trechcinski. "The only solution we have left are the nuclear-power plants." Britain, struggling to meet its Kyoto targets, looks set for a nuclear comeback. In his New Year message, Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to make "the big choice" whether to add nuclear capacity. Few doubt how he will decide. Britain depends on nuclear power for 20 percent of its electricity, but that share is set to fall as older plants are phased out.
America may be on the verge of the first new-plant construction in 20 years. During that time, the industry has kept output rising by upgrading nuclear plants, but many are operating at a better than 90 percent capacity. In August, President Bush signed an energy bill that gives the industry construction subsidies and incentives, which is stimulating a flurry of new plant proposals. How quickly these plants make it off the blueprints remains to be seen. Japan announced ambitious nuclear plans at the 1997 Kyoto conference—to build 20 new plants by 2010—but accidents and local opposition has cut that figure to five new facilities.
Cost overruns decimated nuclear power in the 1970s, but it is now seen as an essential ingredient to any country's energy portfolio, thanks to global warming. New reactor designs—particularly "light-water" reactors—also can reduce the frequency of accidents tenfold. The big question is whether public concern over climate change will trump fears over safety.
The necessity argument won't satisfy the diehards. The awkward issue of where to stow nuclear waste still has to be settled. And all that concrete won't dispel fears of a catastrophic breakdown or a terrorist attack. Antinuclear campaigners blame the resurgent interest in nuclear power on political laziness and a fear of squaring up to more difficult solutions. Cutting energy consumption is a no-no with the voters. "We live in a world where prime ministers don't have the time to look deeply at the issues; they just go for the solutions they have heard about," says Roger Higman, an energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth in London.
But high-minded critics must face an inconvenient reality. In practice, nuclear energy already meets more of the developed world's needs than its members would like to accept. Denmark, implacably opposed to nuclear power, is quite ready to buy nuclear-generated electricity from Sweden, just as the Italians survive on imported power from France, which looks to its nuclear plants for more than 70 percent of its energy. For good measure, France, always Europe's most enthusiastic champion of nuclear power, announced in January that it would build a new pilot reactor by 2020, adding to its tally of nearly 60 plants. The United States gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Norway and Austria, two more diehard anti-nuke nations, can afford a principled position only because of their plentiful supplies of hydroelectric power. Others have no such luxury. If the nuke revival had a slogan, it might go like this: Learn to love nuclear power—or turn off the lights.
With Kasia Kruszkowska
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

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