Europe dims the lights on nuclear power

Battle of Gorleben sounds the death-knell for Continent's dreams of a fission-fuelled future

Nuclear power may well be gone from the European Union within the next 30 years. Across the 15 member states, this controversial energy source is now nearly a decade into a gradual but apparently terminal decline.

Only the French are still building new atomic power stations. But even France has a moratorium on any fresh construction starts until 2000.

No other nation has any realistic, government-endorsed plans for new reactors. The main reasons for the rejection are the expense compared with other forms of electricity generation (mainly coal, oil and gas) and public fears about safety.

In nearly 40 years of civil nuclear power in Western Europe, there has been not been a single disaster. The only serious accident happened in Windscale, Cumbria in 1957, when a military reactor used to make plutonium for Britain's nuclear weapons caught fire. And yet there are still fundamental, unanswered questions about how to deal with nuclear power's radioactive wastes, which remain lethal for tens of thousands of years.

"I can't conceive of the circumstances for any new orders," said Steve Thomas, an energy researcher at Sussex University's Science Policy Research Unit. "The technology is now 20 years old and the regulators will want something a lot better. And who would pay?"

More than one-quarter of Europe's electricity comes from nuclear plants - three-quarters in the case of France. It therefore cannot be shut overnight.

Across the continent, operators are seeking to keep their ageing reactors going for as long as safety regulators and governments allow them - 25, 30, maybe 40 or more years - in order to recoup the massive building investment and delay the high costs of decommissioning.

In a 1980 referendum, Sweden voted to abandon nuclear power. The plan was to close the first of the 12 plants in 1985 and the last by 2005. But so far not one has shut and the date of final closure has been put back to 2010.

France has 57 functioning nuclear power stations; it has a surfeit of electricity and nuclear-generated power is one of its larger exports. Next comes Germany with 19 operational stations, producing some 30 per cent of its electricity. The last order for a new plant was made 15 years ago, and three plants have shut.

In a European nuclear industry dominated by state-owned utilities, the United Kingdom is unusual. Most of its 14 plants have now been sold to the private sector, along with the rest of the electricity industry, and private industry sees no way of building economically viable new reactors.

Italy's three nuclear power stations were killed off after a 1987 referendum came down against atomic energy. Spain abandoned construction of four plants in 1984, but it still has nine operating plants providing one-third of the country's electricity, and one which has closed. Austria only ever built one station, and that never went into operation because of a referendum rejection.

Belgium has seven plants and gets about half of its electricity from nuclear power while Finland, with four plants, is 30 per cent fission- powered. The Netherlands has two small plants operating. None of Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Denmark, and Luxembourg ever went nuclear.

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