Europes nuclear industry campaigns to reassure citizens

Written by Malcolm Subhan | Updated: Nov 27 2004, 05:30am hrs
Is there a future for nuclear-generated electricity in Europe The question might seem absurd at first sight, given that in the European Union (EU), one-third of all the electricity used in homes and factories comes from nuclear power plants. And Europe accounts for 25% of power consumption world-wide.

The future is not bright, however. Hence, the campaign launched this week by the European nuclear industry, with a declaration signed by CEOs of 24 major companies from a dozen countries, including France, Germany and the UK, and a conference attended by over 200 industrialists from the energy sector, members of the European Parliament and officials from the European Commission.

Adverse public opinion in major European countries is one of the key issues facing the industry, conference president and CEO of Germanys RWE Power, Gert Maichel, said. The solution was given by Michael Parker, group chief executive of British Nuclear Fuels: We must give the public the facts.

And the facts were produced in a steady stream by Eduardo Gonzalez, the president of Foratom, the Brussels-based organisation representing the European nuclear industry and conference organiser, and the 20-odd industry speakers. Thus: with its 168 reactors, Europe has an accumulated operating experience of some 4,600 reactor-years, compared with the USs 104 reactors and operating experience of 2,800 years. The message was reassuring to members of the public worried about environmental pollution. Nuclear energy, unlike coal and oil, will help Europe meet the Kyoto protocol targets for carbon dioxide levels: it is entirely free of this gas.

As for radioactive waste, the industry was equally reassuring. Of the two billion tonne of all types of waste produced in the EU, some 35 m.t. are hazardous; these include pesticides, asbestos and heavy metals. But radioactive waste is only a tiny percentage of the total. Swedish scientists have, meanwhile, developed a virtually foolproof method of disposing of radioactive waste. (It involves putting the waste into leak-proof containers and burying them deep in hard rock!).

And the conference had good news for a cost-conscious public. Nuclear-generated electricity is slightly cheaper than that produced by gas- and coal-fired plants, and three times cheaper than electricity generated by offshore wind turbines. Whats more, uranium supply is virtually inexhaustible (it is found in water, as a Swedish speaker noted), and since it comes from countries with political stability, like Australia and Canada, prices and supply are stable.

The volatility of oil and gas prices was stressed by several speakers. The cost comparisons mentioned earlier were based on an oil price of $15 a barrel, making nuclear power even cheaper at todays oil prices. Russia, the conference president pointed out, will be our main gas source, but Europe, he added, is as far off from Russian gasfields as China. Competition will, therefore, be strong.

The future of nuclear power depends on politicians. Both the Brussels conference and its declaration on the future use of nuclear energy for power generation, therefore, targeted the key EU institutions also. The EC plays a key role in shaping energy policy in the 25 member countries and finances research. However, the EUs largest financial contribution to nuclear research is for fusion technology; the EU enjoys a leading position world-wide in the development of fusion. But this is hardly a short-term solution. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), in which India has shown an interest, could be working by 2020, and an electricity-producing reactor could be operating by 2050.

Europes nuclear industry, therefore, wants the EU to encourage its member states to adopt energy policies that keep all options open, including renewables. At the same time, it wants the EC to recognise the vital contribution made by the industry to supply secure and clean energy. With the EU importing more and more energy products, the industry feels the best way to reduce growing dependence on fossil fuels is to allow the nuclear energy industry an opportunity to develop.

Environmentalists and the general public favour the development of new and renewable sources of energy, although there is a shift towards nuclear energy on the part of some environmentalists. Wind energy, for example, is now widely recognised as a viable option. The increase in this particular sector has been 2,000% in 10 years. Even so, the 30% rise in energy production from renewable sources of production is insignificant in absolute terms.

Despite the best efforts of the European industry, the future of nuclear-generated electricity is uncertain. Convincing the public of its benefits is an uphill task. This is reflected in the fact that of the 13 member states operating nuclear power plans, five (Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden) have adopted or announced a moratorium. In the UK, only one nuclear power plant will be in operation after 2023. Will India show Europe the way