Nuclear energy under the microscope

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami has triggered a wave of soul searching in countries that produce energy at nuclear power stations. Some countries, and in particular France, are more confident than others.


Germany’s oldest power stations will be provisionally shut down and all other reactors will be subjected to tests following Japan’s nuclear crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Tuesday that the seven power stations built before 1980 would stop be closed provisionally. Germany has already had suspended a decision to maintain production at other nuclear plants built in the 80s and 90s.

Merkel’s announcement is the biggest signal so far that Japan’s nuclear crisis has put  Europe’s renaissance in atomic energy production in doubt.

Countries across the world have called for reactors to be subjected to tests, possibly in a bid to reassure consumers who live in the shadows of the growing number of nuclear power stations worldwide.

Four of the six reactors at the Fukushima plant in north-east Japan overheated and sparked explosions following Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami that disabled cooling systems. One reactor at the Tokai plant 120 km north of Tokyo was automatically shut down following the earthquake.

And while the Japanese authorities insist that the damage at the Fukushima plant “is no Chernobyl”, some 140,000 residents from the surrounding areas have nevertheless been evacuated from their homes.

The situation in Japan remains critical and the outcome is uncertain now that the news that the concrete vessel around the No. 2 reactor at Japan's Fukushima plant, designed to contain radioactive debris, is “no longer sealed.” Levels of radioactivity in Tokyo are currently ten times higher than normal

Germany paves the way

Over the weekend, thousands of protesters in Germany formed a 45-kilometre human chain from Stuttgart to the ageing Neckarwestheim 1 reactor in Baden-Wuerttemberg to demand that the reactor be shut down.

In response, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday announced that the coalition government had suspended a decision to extend the life of  the country’s nuclear power stations, most of which were opened in the 1980s and 1990s.

This was followed by Tuesday’s announcement that Germany’s oldest reactors would be shut down during a three-month moratorium as of March 22. It remains unclear if they will remain closed afterwards, German environment Minister Norbert Rönttgen cautioned.

Europe jittery

Some 150 nuclear reactors are scattered across Europe. Their future is the focus of a meeting of energy ministers from EU member states on Tuesday.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told Germany’s ARD Television on Tuesday morning: “When a large member state like Germany re-examines atomic energy this can have consequences at the European level.

“If we in Germany are examining nuclear plants from the 80s and 90s, we must also raise the question of whether the security check should be done for all atomic plants in Europe.”

On Monday, Austria called for all nuclear reactors in Europe to undergo stress tests in the event of severe earthquakes. Switzerland said it had suspended plans to renew nuclear power plants. India has ordered that all its reactors be tested.

France acknowledges Japan’s ‘worst scenario’

France is Europe’s biggest producer of atomic energy (and second biggest globally after the USA). Some 80% of energy consumed in the country comes from nuclear sources.

Unsurprisingly, for a country that relies so heavily on the atomic energy sector, the reaction to the Japanese dilemma was muted at first. French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet on Monday called events in Japan “extremely serious” but added that “France should not follow the rest of the EU in overreacting to the situation domestically.”

However, her tone was more alarmist on Tuesday. On her way to an emergency cabinet meeting, Kosciusko-Morizet said Japan was heading for “catastrophe”. She said called the news that the concrete vessel around the reactor was breached “the worst scenario”.

'Surfing a wave in emotion'

In an interview with French daily Le Parisien on Tuesday, Anne Lauvergeon, CEO of French nuclear energy giant Areva said that while the world was analysing the lessons coming out of Japan, the situation in France posed very different challenges.

“There is no risk in France of a tsunami hitting our power stations nor is there a risk of such powerful earthquakes,” she said.

Responding to calls from environmentalists to halt nuclear energy production, she replied: “They are surfing a wave of emotion. The reality of nuclear energy is that it produces no CO2, electricity is 40% cheaper in France than in the rest of Europe.”

The UK also defended its atomic energy programme. British Energy Minister Chris Huhne said that plans to build eight new nuclear power stations in England and Wales would go ahead.

While saying that the British energy sector would “learn every possible lesson” from the Japanese crisis, he told the BBC that " there is a very big difference in that we’re, frankly, amazingly lucky that we don’t live in a seismically active earthquake zone like Japan."

Safety ‘an illusion’

But for environmentalists campaigning against nuclear energy, the debate has been well and truly opened.

There has been a big sea change in attitudes as a response to Fukushima as powerful as there was to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, according to Xavier Rabilloud of green movement “Sortir du Nucléaire” (Get out of Nuclear).

“The fact that so many countries have demanded that reactors should undergo stress tests is a clear admission that safety at nuclear power is an illusion and that no one can guarantee that nuclear accidents will never happen.”

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