[Marxism] Nuclear power problems crop up in Europe

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 10 07:20:37 MDT 2006


 From the August 10, 2006 edition - 
http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0810/p04s01-woeu.html
Nuclear power's green promise dulled by rising temps
Problems with Europe's nuclear plants have raised worries just as the 
energy was gaining support.

By Susan Sachs | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
PARIS

Summer is exposing the chinks in Europe's nuclear power networks.

The extended heat wave in July aggravated drought conditions across much of 
Europe, lowering water levels in the lakes and rivers that many nuclear 
plants depend on to cool their reactors.

As a result, utility companies in France, Spain, and Germany were forced to 
take some plants offline and reduce operations at others. Across Western 
Europe, nuclear plants also had to secure exemptions from regulations in 
order to discharge overheated water into the environment.Even with an 
exemption to environmental rules this summer, the French electric company, 
Electricité de France (EDF), normally an energy exporter, had to buy 
electricity on European spot market, a way to meet electricity demand.

The troubles of the nuclear industry did not end there. Sweden shut four of 
its 10 nuclear reactors after a short-circuit cut power at one plant on 
July 26, raising fears of a dangerous design flaw. One week later, Czech 
utility officials shut down one of the country's six nuclear reactors 
because of what they described as a serious mechanical problem that led to 
the leak of radioactive water.

The disruptions highlight some of the vulnerabilities of nuclear power, 
just at a time when its future was looking brighter in traditionally 
nuclear-shy parts of Europe. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for 
example, has just launched a drive to promote nuclear as the key to making 
his country self-sufficient in energy.

But antinuclear activists have seized on nuclear plants' summer troubles as 
evidence of the energy's limitations.

Austrian protesters, including politicians, have demanded that the Czech 
reactor - which is located just over the border - be closed. In Germany, 
influential antinuclear groups reacted to Sweden's closures by calling for 
the closure of the country's 17 reactors, many of the same design.

"Global warming undermines the arguments we've always heard about nuclear 
power, that it doesn't damage the environment," says Stéphane Lhomme, 
spokesman for a French group, Sortir du Nucléaire, or Abandon Nuclear. 
"Nuclear is not saving us from climate change. It's in trouble because of 
climate change."

His argument may have more resonance in France than elsewhere because, with 
58 reactors, France depends on nuclear energy for 80 percent of its 
electricity and is criticized by some for failing to diversify its energy 
resources.

Concerns about global warming are central to the debate in European 
countries over energy. And this summer's heat wave and droughts, like those 
in 2003, have added a new and possibly confusing element to that debate.

Nuclear power is promoted as a clean alternative to oil and coal-powered 
generators that produce greenhouse gases like carbon monoxide, blamed by 
many scientists for warming the earth's surface and melting polar ice caps.

Public opinion seems to be increasingly open to that argument for nuclear 
power.

A 2005 European Union poll found 62 percent of those surveyed accepted the 
advantage of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 41 percent two 
years ago. And 60 percent acknowledged the benefits of nuclear power as a 
climate-friendly way to reduce dependence on oil.

There are vast differences from country to country, though, over whether to 
invest in new nuclear power technology or even replace aging reactors. 
Finland is building a giant new nuclear reactor, the first in Europe in 15 
years.

In France,the government plans to build a new pressurized-water nuclear 
reactor by 2010. And in England, where opposition to nuclear plants has 
been intense, climate change worries may trump antinuclear feeling.

"The jury is still out," says Simon Tilford, an analyst with the Centre for 
European Reform in London, where the summer heat brought scattered 
blackouts. "But I think the government has had some success at turning 
public opinion around because they argued the environmental case."

There are vast differences from country to country, though, over whether to 
invest in new nuclear power technology or even replace aging reactors.

Finland is building a giant new nuclear reactor, the first in Europe in 15 
years. In France,the government plans to build a new pressurized-water 
nuclear reactor by 2010. And in England, where opposition to nuclear plants 
has been intense, climate change worries may trump antinuclear feeling.

A recently published assessment by the European Environment Agency warned 
that Europe could expect more of the extreme weather shifts that it has 
experienced over the last five years without reductions in greenhouse gases.

Europe's four hottest years on record, the agency said, were 1998, 2002, 
2003, and 2004. It did not account for this year's weather.

Overall, about one-third of all water used in Europe is used for cooling 
electrical generators, including those powered by both nuclear and fossil 
fuels. Environmental officials in several European countries, including 
France and Germany, have warned that water levels in some reservoirs are at 
historic lows and have not returned to pre-2003 heat wave levels.

The power plants now used in Europe are big water consumers. Technological 
advances have made generators more efficient. But European utility 
companies have been hesitant to invest in new plants because they are not 
sure how deeply European governments will make them cut greenhouse gas 
emissions, according to a study just released by Chatham House, a think 
tank in London.

The more immediate question in most countries is how much to spend on 
repairing aging electricity-generating plants, most of them located near 
shrinking water reserves. About two-thirds of the energy produced in a 
generator is converted into heated thermal waste water, says Michael 
Sailer, a researcher at the Institute for Applied Ecology.

"The problem affects both nuclear plants and coal-fired plants," says Sailer.

Older-generation nuclear plants require somewhat more water for cooling, 
however, so nuclear-dependent countries like France are right to start 
worrying. It's the second hot summer after 2003, he adds. If they have 
more, they will have a problem.

Anti-nuclear campaigners say that this summer's problems at European 
reactors are here to stay. Even if you have one new plant that supposedly 
is better, says Mr. Lhomme, you still have 58 others [in France] that make 
the same problems.

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