Japanese nuclear threat causes anti-nuclear backlash in Europe
By dpa correspondents Mar 14, 2011, 13:02 GMT
Berlin - The threat of meltdown at Japanese nuclear plants has prompted a backlash across Europe against government plans to reinvest in nuclear energy, over fears that reactors could unleash environmental disasters.
In Germany, where a majority opposes nuclear energy, there has been a new public outcry over a decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel's government last year to extend nuclear power generation well beyond the year 2030.
Merkel responded quickly to the public mood, ahead of looming state elections in which the nuclear issue could swing the tide against her centre-right coalition.
'What happened in Japan is a turning point for the world,' Merkel said on Saturday, hours after the initial earthquake-related blast at the Fukushima reactor in north-eastern Japan.
By Monday it looked likely that Merkel would announce the suspension of plans to extend the life-spans of nuclear power stations by an average 12 years, in order to run safety tests first on the country's 17 power stations.
Nuclear experts estimate that the cost of upgrading security features, such as reinforcing the concrete walls of reactors, would cost too much for it to be financially viable to keep plants running.
In the next two weeks, Merkel's centre-right coalition faces elections in three German states, including the populous state of Baden-Wuettemberg where the anti-nuclear Green Party is a key challenger.
Over the border in France - a country that gets 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear - events in Japan have given many people food for thought.
France has 58 nuclear plants - three more than Japan - with an average age of 25 years.
In both France and Germany, the fact that Japan is operating with advanced technology - as opposed to the 1986 disaster at the Soviet reactor in Chernobyl - has prompted questions about the safety of their own reactors.
While Europe faces lower seismic threats than Japan, at least six French plants, including the oldest facility in use since 1977, are located in areas of 'moderate seismicity,' according to Liberation newspaper.
Faced with calls for a review of the country's dependance on nuclear, prime minister Francois Fillon called in his defence, ecology, interior, economy, health, industry and foreign ministers, as well as nuclear industry stakeholders, on Sunday.
The government later assured that France 'has always favoured the maximum level of security in the construction and operation of its installations,' but said in a statement that the country would 'draw useful lessons from the Japanese events'.
Unlike Germany or the United States, nuclear energy has been remarkably controversy-free in France, where many pride themselves on their 'high-tech' power and their independence from fossil fuels. But that could change if the fallout from the two nuclear blasts in Japan worsens.
In nuclear-free Italy, events in Japan have already stirred up opposition to government plans to introduce nuclear power, after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster prevented the country from launching a nuclear programme.
A referendum had already been scheduled for June, in an attempt to block proposals by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government to begin constructing nuclear power stations by 2013.
Italy is prone to violent seismic shifts and more than 300 people were killed in an earthquake in the central region of Abruzzo in 2009.
Ermete Realacci, of the main centre-left opposition party, called for the Italian government to 'suspend a provision currently being examined by Parliament on where to situate nuclear facilities.'
But the government argued that Italy, estimated as the world's seventh largest economy, can ill-afford to continue relying on imports - mostly from Russia and Algeria - to meet its energy requirements.
'I am against emotive choices,' said Justice Minister Angelino Alfano. 'There's a need (for Italy) to be free from dependency on (foreign) energy.'
Spanish Economy Minister Elena Salgado echoed the call, stressing in reference to events in Japan, 'We should not take decisions based only on concrete circumstances.'
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero initially pledged to gradually phase out nuclear plants, but has since softened his anti-nuclear stance.
In Britain, which has embarked on an ambitious programme to replace the country's outdated nuclear reactors, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said regulators would be studying the crisis in Japan to 'learn any lessons.'
In 2008, the previous Labour government in Britain gave the go-ahead for the construction of a 'new generation' of nuclear power plants, aimed at replacing the country's 19 outdated nuclear power stations by 2035.
Britain derives around 20 per cent of its energy needs from nuclear power.
In Finland and Sweden, where the governments are overseeing the construction of new nuclear reactors, they acknowledged the need to learn from events in Japan but ruled out hasty decisions to retreat from nuclear projects.
Polish premier Donald Tusk also said that Japan's nuclear danger would not influence Warsaw's plans to build two nuclear power plants, the first of which will be built from 2016.
'(The facility) will be designed for extreme security. But we cannot exaggerate - Poland does not lay in the sphere of earthquakes, broadcaster TVN 24 quotes Tusk as saying.
Russia also showed no signs of backing away from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's plans to construct 26 plants by the year 2030, aimed at doubling the nuclear share of energy to about a third.
Russian state-owned Rosatom is also applying for nuclear construction projects in China, India and Iran.
Read more about EU
Read more about Energy
Read more about Japan Quakes
Read more about Nuclear
Read more about Reactions