Despite German U-turn, nuclear here to stay in Europe

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Fears over nuclear safety after radiation leaks at a Japanese plant triggered by an earthquake and tsunami have pushed Germany and Switzerland to call time on atomic energy, but nuclear's days are far from over in Europe.

Including Germany, which will close the last of its 17 reactors in 2022, 14 of the 27 European Union states produce nuclear energy.

The biggest producers are France, with 58 reactors in operation and another two in the pipeline, and Britain, with 19 currently in use and another eight to come on-stream.

The others are: Sweden (with 10), Spain (8), Belgium (7), the Czech Republic (6), Finland (4), Hungary (4), Slovakia (4), Bulgaria (2), Romania (2), the Netherlands (1) and Slovenia (1).

Switzerland, whose government recommends phasing out by 2034, has five reactors, to which must be added 32 in Russia and 15 in Ukraine. Another is also being built in Belarus, which is causing great unease in EU neighbour Lithuania.

While Switzerland's stance was more surprising, having originally announced plans to replace its plants, Berlin's decision showed the way, Austrian environment minister Nikolaus Berlakovich said Monday.

"This decision by a highly industrialised country will have a very strong signal effect. It shows that scrapping nuclear power is both possible and feasible," he said.

"Germany's decision strengthens me in my conviction 'Move out of nuclear energy and into renewables'," he said.

The issue is hot also in Spain, where solar is the big renewable source, in Belgium, and in Scotland, a state-less energy fulcrum that is home to about a quarter of Britain's nuclear capacity, but whose new, separatist majority government does not want any new reactors built there.

Already negotiating control of existing oil and gas revenues off its shores, the Scottish government in Edinburgh instead wants to jumpstart wind, wave and tidal development around a tense referendum on independence set for 2014.

Everywhere, though, the question of electricity supply remains vital.

"In the case of closure, it will be necessary to import energy probably from France, in other words produced by the nuclear sector," underlined Belgium's energy minister Paul Magnette.

"Germany now risks landing in a position with a very uneven energy policy," Swedish environment minister Andreas Carlgren also noted. He pointed out that Berlin will also revert to its coalmines, planned closures for which triggered a wave of strikes.

However, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania each also have new reactors planned -- even if Italy has frozen thoughts of returning to the technology it abandoned in 1987.

Even Japan has not given up on atomic energy, as Prime Minister Naoto Kan confirmed at last week's G8 meeting of major industrialised states in France.

China, an emerging renewables world leader alongside smaller specialist producers such as Denmark, also has 34 nuclear projects slated, 26 of which are already undergoing construction.

EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger is aware that 30 percent of the bloc's energy comes from nuclear generation.

While Greenpeace insists 68 percent of EU electricity needs can come from renewables by 2030 and 99.5 percent by 2050, nuclear output still has priority access to transportation grids.

© 2011 AFP

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