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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Europe Dims the Lights on Nuclear Power

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s News Analyst Mark Hertsgaard assesses the recent moves to phase out, or move away from, nuclear power in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, France and Britain.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Germany's announcement that they're going to be phasing out nuclear power over the next 20 years attracted a lot of attention around the world. Less noticed, though, have been some other major developments in the continuing debate over nuclear power. For example, there is serious talk about ending it in Sweden, and a complete shut-down is now planned in Holland. Above all, nuclear power is stalling even in the two nations that are most committed to it, Japan and France. Does all this signify a turn away from nuclear power once and for all? With us now to help answer that question is Living on Earth's political observer, Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, let's start with Germany. Now, this decision is basically the result of politics, right?

HERTSGAARD: Yes, indeed. The Green Party has been demanding an end to nuclear power since they first began in the 1970s. Now they're in power. They're in the government as the junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats of Chancellor Schroeder, and that has been their key demand: End nuclear power. Schroeder agreed to this during the campaign, tried to backtrack once he was in office. German industry also tried to put the kabosh on the plan. The Greens have held tough on it, though, and now they've got a deal. And this deal is the following. That basically by the year 2020, over the next 20 years, Germany will shut down all 19 of the nuclear plants that provide the country with 31 percent of its electricity. So, that's a pretty major accomplishment for the Greens. It's worth noting, though, that there was some dissent within the Green Party about accepting this deal, because they're afraid that if Schroeder and the Greens get voted out during the next election, that the new government could rescind it. On the other hand, the anti-nuclear sentiment is very strong in Germany. Politically, this is now definitive, in the sense of, okay, Germany is now coming out and saying we're the first major industrial power to stop nuclear power. That's obviously going to have some big effects. France in particular, they now get 70 percent of their electricity from nukes. It's going to be interesting to see what happens there. They've got a moratorium at the moment on new nuclear construction, up until the year 2002, and then they have an election. So, after that election, be interesting to see, are the greens going to be even more in power in France than now? And will they push for a similar kind of restriction?

CURWOOD: Now, what about the Dutch? They're going to have a full moratorium, but they don't have many plants, right?

HERTSGAARD: They're closing their last nuclear plant in the year 2003. They will be completely non-nuclear at that point. And recently we hear from Sweden that the Swedes, who rely on nuclear for 48 percent of their electricity supply right now, the Swedish Environment Minister came out and said we should get rid of nuclear power entirely, and Sweden wants to be a leader in renewable energy development.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering about Japan. They're another really big nuclear user. Of course there was that big accident back in September, that reprocessing plant. A couple people were killed. There was a lot of radiation. What is happening to the support of nuclear power there?

HERTSGAARD: Well, that action that you mentioned, Steve, that may have been the world's most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl. And predictably enough, it had an enormous effect on the Japanese public opinion. Of course, Japan has particular historical reasons for concern about nuclear technology, and when that accident came last September it really reminded people of just how small and densely populated a country Japan is vis a vis nuclear technology. So, big public opposition, clearly jeopardizing the government's plan to build 20 new reactors. They were planning to build 20 new reactors over the next ten years. Hard to imagine that going forward. The government is now questioning the credibility of the nuclear industry in Japan, and you've got one more real logistical problem, which is they have no place to put that waste. And the public is really concerned about that, because it's such a densely populated country. The Russians, as we mentioned a couple weeks ago on this program, the Russians are seeing that as an opportunity, saying send your nuclear waste to us. So that could open up a little breathing room for the Japanese. But nuclear power looks like it's in big, big trouble in Japan now.

CURWOOD: What about the less-developed countries? I'm thinking of South Asia, where there are a lot of plans to build nuclear power plants. South Korea in particular, but also China, India, they're talking about it.

HERTSGAARD: That's right. The nuclear industry for many years has been looking to the less-developed countries as a possible salvation for their market problems. South Korea is a big market for them. They now have six nuclear plants under construction. They say they want to add 14 more. Interesting to see if they're going to be able to go forward with that, now with the kind of new concerns about this. And then of course the big tamale here is China. China has been saying that it wanted to have 40,000 megawatts of nuclear power by the year 2020. But last year, they, too, said that they're going to essentially call a moratorium for the next three years, which is probably good, since right now two of the plants that they've got on their drawing boards are two Russian-designed nuclear reactors that are supposed to go down in the most densely-populated area of the world, south China.

CURWOOD: It doesn't look like nuclear power is doing well anywhere, but what about the call that it could be used to help fight global warming?

HERTSGAARD: That's always been what the nuclear industry has been saying. Nuclear plants obviously don't release any CO2. And therefore, if you don't want coal, come to nuclear. The problem with that, of course, is the cost. Nuclear power was always promoted as being too cheap to meter. Now it's turning out to be uneconomical throughout the world. And as a result, even in France, the big champion of nuclear power, when they unveiled their plan for fighting global warming in January, even France does not foresee a significant reliance on nuclear power.

CURWOOD: We don't have much time left, Mark, but what's your analysis? Nuclear power is finished on the planet?

HERTSGAARD: I don't think it's finished. One of the most devilish aspects of nuclear power is that you're never quite done with it because of the waste. It stay around for thousands and thousands of years. However, as a growing commercial concern, it's very hard to see much future for nuclear power, and the German and French decisions are just further evidence of that.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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