Japan crisis fuels fears over Europe's nuclear revival

By By Adrian Croft and Daniel Fineren, Reuters

Posted at Mar 14 2011 05:12 AM | Updated as of Mar 14 2011 01:12 PM

LONDON - Japan's nuclear crisis in the wake of a huge earthquake is likely to increase opposition to plans for a major nuclear expansion in Europe and focus attention on the vast potential costs of a nuclear disaster.

The crisis will reignite concern over nuclear safety as Japan fights to avert a meltdown at crippled nuclear reactors, describing the quake and tsunami, which may have killed more than 10,000 people, as its biggest crisis since World War Two.

The disaster is a setback to the nuclear industry, which is enjoying a renaissance as public fears over nuclear safety have faded along with memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States and Ukraine's 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Many countries plan new nuclear power plants, regarding nuclear as a clean alternative to expensive and dwindling oil and gas and saying new technology should allay safety fears.

But anti-nuclear campaigners around Europe have seized on the Japanese accident as evidence of the dangers of nuclear power and said governments should rethink plans for new plants.

"I think it will make a lot of governments, authorities and other planners think twice about planning power stations in seismic areas," said Jan Haverkamp, European Union policy campaigner for environmental group Greenpeace, which opposes new nuclear reactors and wants existing ones phased out.

French reactor maker Areva and nuclear power producers EDF and GDF Suez are important industry players. France's Alstom and Schneider Electric are also active in the sector, as are Switzerland's ABB and Germany's Siemens.

Merkel under pressure

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government last year extended the operating lives of Germany's nuclear reactors, said the government was consulting with nuclear experts and watching
the situation in Japan closely.

The Japanese radiation leak comes at a difficult time for Merkel, whose conservatives face three state elections in March where nuclear safety fears could help her opponents.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of anti-nuclear protesters formed a 45-km (27 mile) human chain from Stuttgart to a nuclear power plant that will be kept running longer because of the new policy. The protest was planned before the Japanese earthquake.

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger plans a meeting in the next few days to discuss lessons from the accident with nuclear safety authorities, nuclear operators and constructors.

In Britain, which plans a major nuclear building programme to replace ageing plants, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said on Sunday he had asked the chief nuclear inspector to report on the implications of the Japanese crisis.

He said that while there may be lessons on operator safety, Britain had different reactors to those in Japan and stressed that Britain is not in an earthquake zone.

British Green lawmaker Caroline Lucas said the Japanese accident strengthened the case against new nuclear construction.

"You will never be able to completely design out human error, design failure or natural disaster," said Lucas, whose party backs energy efficiency and renewables to meet Britain's energy and climate change goals.

Walt Patterson, associate fellow at London's Chatham House thinktank, said that, while the Japanese crisis would affect public perceptions of the nuclear industry, the financial damage could also be severe.

"Somebody is going to wind up paying the bill and it will probably be the Japanese public one way or another," he said.

"That is undoubtedly going to filter back to the debate in Europe as a further factor in the very dubious economics of these plants," he told Reuters.

Italy, one of the few European countries prone to earthquakes, is the only Group of Eight industrialised nation without a nuclear power plant.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wants a quarter of the country's electricity to be nuclear in future and the leader of Berlusconi's PDL party in the lower house said Italy would not change its plans because of the Japanese disaster.

Events in Japan are likely to loom large in voters' minds however when Italy holds a referendum within the next three months on whether to build nuclear power plants.

France, the second biggest nuclear energy producer after the United States, said it would discuss ways of securing its 58 reactors that provide most of the country's electricity.

Areva, EDF and GDF Suez had no comment.

Compelling need

The compelling need to reduce dependence on oil, gas and coal, along with the climate-warming carbon they produce, mean Japan's disaster is unlikely to derail Europe's multi-billion-dollar nuclear new build plans, sources said.

"In the heat of the moment, this will of course stir calls to end nuclear power generation, but over the longer term governments have to think rationally about rising power needs and CO2 emissions," said an industry source, asking not to be named.

"Nuclear power is an unavoidable element of the energy mix."

Another French industry source said the Japanese nuclear accident would create a "premium on safety" and support the case for building third generation reactors.

That source said third-generation reactor models such as the 1,650-megawatt (MW) EPR and the 1,100-MW Atmea, both manufactured by Areva, offered the possibility of confining the core of a melting reactor, which was not necessarily the case with the Fukushima Daiichi reactors built over 30 years ago.

"I cannot see how what's happening in Japan could call Britain's programme into question given the country's power needs," the second nuclear source said.

"Of course this will raise additional questions on safety but I don't think this will delay the certification process or the investment decisions."