The production of electricity through nuclear power was hailed a generation ago as heralding a brave new era for mankind. Now, the nuclear industry sits largely neglected, outside the mainstream of energy planning for the future. High costs, fears of radiation, and difficulty in nuclear waste storage have all combined to tarnish its image. However, Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen has recently called for the European Union to place new emphasis on nuclear power generation. And he also called for fairer treatment of Eastern European countries which use old Soviet-era reactors. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports Lipponen's views have reopened the nuclear debate.
Prague, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Belgium has become the latest European Union state to renounce nuclear-power generation. The government says it will ask parliament to pass a bill shutting down the country's seven reactors by 2025 -- a bold move, considering Belgians currently receive 60 percent of their electricity from nuclear reactors.
The move means that Belgium joins Germany and Sweden in pledging to phase out all their atomic generating capacity. Nuclear power -- once a symbol of the power of high technology to liberate mankind from energy restraints -- has today fallen from grace, has lost the public trust.
But not everywhere. Finland's prime minister, Paavo Lipponen, has recently come out strongly in favor of building new reactors and has called on the European Union to consider putting more emphasis on nuclear plants. Finland, which is presently debating whether to build a fifth reactor, is the only European Union member prepared to expand its nuclear industry.
This, not surprisingly, appalls environmentalists. As Harri Lammy, a spokesman for Greenpeace in Helsinki, puts it: "It's old fashioned. It is, in a way, talk of a dinosaur energy technology. And evidently Mr. Lipponen has not heard of the changes that the new technologies have brought about around Europe, and this is especially surprising in that Finland has very good alternatives to nuclear power."
But there's irony in the situation, in that at least part of the motivation for new nuclear generation is the need for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet the targets set under the Kyoto accords on climate change. Nuclear energy is, of course, generated without carbon emissions.
Brussels-based analyst Christian Egenhofer of the Centre for European Policy Studies says: "The driving force for this new nuclear reactor is climate policy. Finland has a relatively tough target [of air pollution reduction] to achieve under the Kyoto Protocol, and now they are looking into various options to actually meet the target. And one of the things which is peculiar to Finland is that Finland has a lot of intensive industries -- one of which is paper and pulp, which is really competing on the world market, and is therefore very sensitive to energy prices."
Egenhofer says renewable energy sources are too expensive in the short term to fit the country's requirements, an assertion Greenpeace's Lammy disputes.
But in Brussels, a spokesman for Energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio made clear the EU is thinking in practical terms in not turning its back on nuclear power generation. The spokesman, Gilles Gantelet, says it is up to member states to decide how they create their electricity. He adds: "Right now it's difficult to close all the nuclear power plants we have in Europe. Because if we did, we would have the greatest difficulties fulfilling the commitments to Kyoto, because that would mean an extra 300 million tons a year of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere."
At the same time, Commissioner de Palacio has said she still wants to see the highest level of safety in the EU regarding nuclear reactors. She says this is especially important in view of the coming eastwards enlargement of the union. A recent press report ("European Voice," 6 March) quotes de Palacio as warning "certain accession countries have plants which do not meet these standards and cannot be upgraded to meet them." She does not name the countries.
Her remarks come as candidate member Lithuania has signaled new trouble with its huge Ignalina power plant. The EU is demanding a timetable for the final closure of the Chernobyl-style plant. But Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus says it is impossible for his country to close Ignalina by the suggested date of 2009. The plant produces more than two-thirds of Lithuania's electricity, and Adamkus says the closure of the plant would be too socially damaging.
Such comments would find a sympathetic listener in Finland's Lipponen, who says the call by Western leaders for the closure of Soviet-style reactors is discriminatory. To many of the applicants, he says, nuclear-power generation is an economic asset. He also notes that the Soviet-designed reactor at Lovisa on the Finnish coast -- a hybrid that is fitted out with Western technology, is rated as very safe.
Lipponen also singles out Slovakia as what he calls "a leading country in nuclear power technology." The Slovaks have successfully equipped their Mochovice reactor with Western equipment, and are closing the country's older plant at Jaslovske Bohunice. By contrast, the Czech Republic is still struggling to get its new but glitch-prone hybrid reactor at Temelin working properly.
Back in Helsinki, Greenpeace's Lammy sees domestic political considerations as being behind Lipponen's preoccupations with the safety of Eastern reactors: "Mr. Lipponen is trying to justify the Finnish discussion of the fifth reactor. Finland is one of the only countries in the world -- and certainly in Western Europe -- which is still thinking about buying a Russian-type reactor. And it gets [Lipponen] irritated when the same type of reactors are shut down, or asked to be shut down, by the EU."
In Brussels, analyst Egerhofer says increasing use of natural gas, with its low-pollution emissions, might be a means for Helsinki to meet its Kyoto goals without taking the nuclear path. But, he says, the geopolitical price is too high: "The real thing which makes Finland different from the rest [of the EU] is that they are not interconnected with the European gas grid, and therefore any increased gas use would make them more dependent on Russia -- which for historical reasons, they are not very keen on."
In any event, Lipponen's stance in defense of the Eastern countries will win him friends in the region, as will his spirited support for the rights of the small countries in the European Union.