Conflict & Justice

Japan's nuclear crisis and Europe

By Clark Boyd

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The European Commission today suggested that all of Europe's nuclear reactors undergo stress tests, in the wake of the unfolding crisis in Japan. The move follows individual decisions by Germany, Switzerland, Britain, and Finland to reassess their commitments to nuclear power.

It's fair to say that Europe's thinking on nuclear power is mixed.

In France, more than 75 percent of power production comes from nuclear. On the other hand, Austria, Italy and Denmark are among the European countries that have prohibited nuclear plants from being built. And then there are countries such as Belgium, which has nuclear power plants, but it slowly phasing them out.

Germany had a similar plan until last year, when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to extend the life of the country's 17 nuclear plants for another 12 years.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of German protested that decision. The protests were given added weight because of the incidents in Japan. Merkel quickly announced that Germany would change course.

"We have a new situation," she said. "All German nuclear plants will have a comprehensive safety check. This is a moratorium of three months."

Today, Merkel announced that all plants that went into service before 1980 would be taken offline while the checks were carried out. The country's Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, said that Germany will push other countries to take a second look at their plants. "After what happened in Japan, it can't be business as usual," Westerwelle said. "This has consequences not only for Germany's energy policy, but also for the debate in Europe."
In neighboring Austria, nuclear free itself, there's been growing concern about nuclear facilities in neighboring countries, particularly the former Eastern Bloc nations of Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics.

"We must quickly reassure the people," said Nikolaus Belakovich. "It must be quickly proven how earth-quake proof these nuclear power stations are, how the cooling systems work, and how the reactors are protected."

French officials cautioned against making decisions without "all the necessary information and analysis" from Japan. And British Prime Minister David Cameron also took a more guarded approach.
"The UK does not have reactors of the kind in Fukushima, nor does it plan any, nor obviously are we in a seismic area, but if there are lessons to be learn, we must learn them," he told the House of Commons. That's what some American politicians are saying as well.

Senator Joe Lieberman, a long time proponent of nuclear energy, said on Sunday that it was time to "put the brakes on" the building of any more plants in the United States until more can be learned from the incident in Japan.

Today, the Obama Administration tried to reassure Americans that nuclear power plants in the United States are safe.

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu told a House subcommittee that US plants are designed to withstand worst-case scenarios such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

"We need to take a hard look at any lesson learned from the Japanese tragedy that can further improve the safety of our reactors," Chu said.

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