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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

COMMENTARY: Talking quietly about nuclear power


By Annamari Sipilä in Brussels

Talking about nuclear power is an art and a discipline all its own. One of the skills is branding the opposite camp's arguments as exaggerated, biased, politically-charged, or long on emotions and commensurably short on facts. For this reason the European Union has tended to steer clear of a broad discussion on the future of nuclear energy. Nobody wants a ruckuss.

The two sides, for and against, have been too from from one another for a sensible dialogue.

But the EU itself does not decide on whether the use of nuclear power in Europe increases or not. The choice of forms of energy belongs to each member state individually.

The chain of influence travels from the member-states back to the Union. When a sufficient number of EU members resolve to favour nuclear power, it will inevitably begin to be reflected in the Union's own stand on the matter, and on decisions and actions from the top.

In the course of the last year, more and more EU members have begun to lean towards nukes as a source of energy, or have at least shelved earlier plans to give up nuclear energy for good.

There are three main reasons behind this, and they can be condensed into the names of three cities: Kyoto, Moscow, and Lisbon.

Kyoto means the fight against climate change. It requires a massive reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn - in the view of the pro-nuclear lobby - requires the building of additional nuclear reactors.

Moscow means the European union's dependence on imported energy. The gas crisis in January indicated that the EU countries are rigid with fear - and with cold - in the face of Russia, when Moscow orders that the natural gas taps be shut.

Lisbon, then again, is the same as the Lisbon Strategy, which is basically the EU's ongoing development plan to make itself into "the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion and respect for the environment by 2010".

The economic crisis does admittedly carry a threat that "Lisbon" should be exchanged for "Washington": would nuclear power be of help when the credit crunch emanating from the United States is plunging Europe into recession?

The new champions of nuclear power include Britain, Italy, Poland, and Estonia. Sweden no longer rejects the idea with main force, and a similar decision is now expected in Belgium.

Austria remains the strongest critic of nuclear power within the EU fold. The German line will be determined by the results of this autumn's elections.

The Union's energy ministers will be congregating in Brussels on Thursday of this week.

The agenda is also to include talk about nuclear energy.

The ministers are expected to draw a line that nuclear power is one resource among others when the EU tries to improve its energy security. It doesn't sound like much.
But in fact it is quite a lot.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 17.2.2009

The writer is the Helsingin Sanomat correspondent in Brussels.


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