European Nations Reconsidering Nuclear Power

More European countries are taking a new look at an energy source they had rejected. For instance, Germany's plans to phase out nuclear power by 2021 are under review due to concerns about energy security and climate change.

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Concerns about climate change and energy security are causing some European countries to reconsider nuclear power. Proponents say nuclear power offers an alternative to depending on others for energy supplies, and the actual power generation comes without greenhouse gases. Opponents point to what they say are the dangers of nuclear power and the problem of nuclear waste. This debate is particularly sharp in Germany, from where NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS: All of Germany's 17 nuclear power plants are scheduled to be closed by 2021, part of a deal signed by government and industries six years ago. But operators of two reactors are now applying for permission to stay open longer. On German radio recently, Chancellor Angela Merkel challenged people who want to get rid of nuclear plants to come up with replacements that won't add to global warming.

Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL (Germany): (Through Translator) There is energy efficiency. I believe a lot of energy could be saved. And, of course, there is the issue of renewable energy. But we have to be realistic here and ask how much can we manage? The people who want both the nuclear phase-out and climate protection at the same time need to come up with answers.

HARRIS: One of those people is Tobias Munchmeyer of Greenpeace. His answer is efficiency and renewables, with natural gas to temporarily fill in the gap. But he says...

Mr. TOBIAS MUNCHMEYER (Greenpeace): It depends on the government.

HARRIS: When reactors closed down, the companies that own them will look to provide power through other means. What they'll invest in, Munchmeyer says, depends on what it's worth to them.

Mr. MUNCHMEYER: If the German government is giving the right incentives for investments, then investments would go much more into natural gas or even the renewables. If it is designing it as it looks now - right now - then there would be more investments into coal or even lignite, which is even more a problem for our climate.

HARRIS: More coal-powered plants than natural gas ones are currently planned in Germany. The government's carbon emissions reduction scheme has been harshly criticized by E.U. officials, in part because it does not reward cleaner natural gas plants. The policy to close all nuclear reactors won't change during the current coalition government, but some politicians would like to see it go, including in Hesse, the state where one plant has applied for an operating extension.

Fritzner Volker(ph) is spokesman for Environment Ministry of Air.

Mr. FRITZNER VOLKER (Spokesman, Environment Ministry of Air): (Through Translator) Europe is investing in nuclear energy. Neither Europe nor the rest of the world is affected by Germany's position. If a lot of cars are driving toward you on the highway, you've got to wonder who is going in the wrong direction.

HARRIS: Plans to phase out nuclear power in Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands have shifted over time to allow plants to operate past their target shutdown dates. New reactors are being built in France and Finland. Hungary is talking about extending reactor life from 30 to 50 years. The Baltic States are interested in a joint new nuclear plant. And the Czech Republic is discussing reopening a uranium mine.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

(Soundbite of a bell ringing)

HARRIS: Germany's first nuclear plant to go offline after the phase out decision is in Stade, a small town on the Elder River with churches and cobblestone streets.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HARRIS: In the plant's reactor room, workers guide machinery to pull metal racks that used to hold fuel rods out of a blue pool next to the reactor. All the highly radioactive spent fuel was moved to a treatment plant in France two years ago, just before a German law forbidding such transports went into effect.

Unidentified Woman: (German spoken)

HARRIS: Workers leaving the reactors still pause in front of big metal shields for automated contamination checks. Even when plants close in Germany, they'll continue to store waste until a permanent solution is found. Many locals here say they're glad this plant is on its way out.

Ms. MELANIE HOLMAN(ph) (Dental Assistant): (German spoken)

HARRIS: I like the fact that it isn't running anymore, says Melanie Holman, a dental assistant out for a stroll with her baby. It's a very uncomfortable feeling to have one so close by, she says - especially with a child. Of course, it will be a problem if they switch everything off, she says. Power has to come from somewhere. But she says I think the risk of nuclear power is high for terrorist attacks and things like that.

After the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, playgrounds in Germany were closed, and people were warned to stay inside due to contamination. Now proponents of nuclear power say rising sea levels and other effects of global warming are a greater risk than a nuclear accident.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Stade.

INSKEEP: In this country, a plan for a radioactive waste dump is nearly dead. At least that's the view of the director of Nevada's nuclear projects agency. Federal authorities want to dig an underground dump in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. And the state says it is moving forward with the project for another year. Yet at the same time, a state official tells the Associated Press that because of protests and the loss of support in Congress, the program is, quote, "In big trouble, if it's not already deceased."

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