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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gas crisis brings nuclear energy to the forefront

Slovakia, Bulgaria, Italy, Britain even Germany are among those countries giving nuclear energy another look, following the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which has cut the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe has alarmed governments about the issue of energy security. Slovakia and Bulgaria, among the worst hit by the gas cutoff, announced last week that they may reopen Soviet-era reactors that had been dismantled in recent years, before the countries joined the European Union. “We consider restarting (the reactor) as extraordinarily actual and acute. When a critical moment occurs we will make the step,” Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said. Brussels will listen to the arguments of Slovakia on the need to restart the country’s Bohunice nuclear power plant and then assess the situation, the Commission said on November 12. Slovakia had agreed to close the Bohunice plant as part of its EU accession agreement but now is seeking alternative energy sources.

“The (EU Energy) Commissioner (Andris Piebalgs) will hear the Slovak authorities’ explanation and in the light of the explanation ... he will assess the situation,” Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger was quoted by the press as saying. Meanwhile, Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said on January 16 that his country will start technical preparations to re-open one of its shut nuclear reactors at Kozloduy if the gas crisis continues, but only with the European Union’s consent. “The government decided to start technical preparations to re-open one of its shut nuclear plant reactors if the gas crisis continues over an unforseeable period of time,” Stanishev was quoted by the press as saying. Preparations would take about 45 days, he added. But he noted: “We cannot act unilaterally and put our partners in front of an accomplished fact.” “A dialogue with the European Commission and the member states is necessary,” he said. Brussels, however, is highly unlikely to approve Bulgaria’s ans Slovakia’s appeals to reopen their nuclear reactors, experts say. Only two 1,000-megawatt reactors remain in operation at Bulgaria’s sole nuclear power plant at Kozloduy, after the country shut four other 440-magawatt units at the plant in 2003 and 2006 to secure EU accession. Even German politicians are openly discussing the advantages of nuclear energy. “It’s increasingly becoming apparent that we have to lay greater emphasis on resources available in Germany,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) quoted German Economics Minister Michael Glos as saying earlier in January.

“I want to draw attention to the fact that we still have a number of nuclear power stations in Germany which, unfortunately, are going to be turned off in a few years just for political reasons.” On January 12 in Brussels, he was seconded by one of his state secretaries, Peter Hintze, who told a meeting of European Union energy ministers, “We need to take another calm look at the atomic energy issue, which is currently on hold.” The German government is bound by a 1999 agreement to shut down the country’s nuclear power stations by 2020, but the cessation of deliveries of Russian natural gas to Europe because of gas crisis has provoked deep concerns regarding over-dependency on a single source of energy. “What we are experiencing in supply breakdowns did not occur even during the many decades of the Cold War,” Heintze complained. Moreover, the Czech Republic - which is less dependent on Russian gas than its neighbours - appears to be planning to expand its use of nuclear energy, despite the moratorium on the construction of new nuclear reactors that was part of Prague’s EU accession agreement, the daily Hospodarske Noviny reported on January 16.

This is a policy turnaround by the Green Party-ruled Environment Ministry, the paper writes, as the ministry had previously opposed any move in this direction. One of the reasons is the gas crisis. France, which derives nearly 80 percent of its energy from its 58 nuclear reactors, is looking prophetic now. The French chose atomic energy after the oil crisis of the 1970s. “The French must be delighted that the country didn’t bet only on gas when we see what is happening with the gas,” the head of French energy supplier EDF, Pierre Gadonneix, said on French radio last week. EDF and other European utilities, notably the German energy giants E.ON and RWE, are investing heavily in nuclear energy in Europe, with projects in Britain and Finland. However, environmentalists say that increased nuclear energy use is not as good an idea as it may seem. “Nuclear energy is used to generate electricity while 90 percent of Russian gas imports to Europe are used for heating. They’re two different things,” Greenpeace official Jan Beranek was quoted by AFP as saying. Also environmentalists point out that while nuclear power may not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, the long-term problem of disposing of nuclear waste remains a major challenge. “Moreover, countries such as Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic depend on Russian fuel for their nuclear plants which means that the issue of dependence on Russia is not solved. “These countries would do better to improve their energy efficiency,” he said.

Source: New Europe

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