A Change in Climate; Political Worries Are Driving a Nuclear Rethink in the West

Newsweek International, February 6, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Change in Climate; Political Worries Are Driving a Nuclear Rethink in the West


Byline: William Underhill (With Kasia Kruszkowska)

Martin Landtman is thinking big. As project director of Finland's next nuclear-power station, he's responsible for his country's largest-ever industrial investment. Over the next four years his work force will pour 250,000 cubic meters of reinforced concrete--enough to build 5,000 apartment blocks--at the Olkiluoto site on the Baltic coast. The goal: a structure tough enough to withstand a direct hit from the world's largest airliner or to contain a meltdown of its radioactive core. But his biggest challenge may have already passed. The project--the first new nuclear-power station in Europe since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986--now has majority support among his fellow Finns.

A nuclear plant with popular backing? And in one of those planet-loving Nordic states? Look no further for proof that the nuclear industry is losing its bugaboo status. Among voters, new anxieties have emerged to offset the old safety fears. Mounting evidence of climate change has refocused attention on an energy source that won't soil the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the cost of gas and oil is soaring. Europeans don't want to be dependent on supplies from Russia, especially after Moscow's recent show of arm-twisting with Ukraine. Japan wants to wean itself off of energy imports. U.S. citizens are fed up with relying on Middle Eastern states for their energy.

Nuclear power is increasingly seen as the only energy source that can square the needs of the environment and industry. More research is necessary before renewable sources will be able to provide energy in sufficient quantities at a realistic price. Olkiluoto's output alone will meet 10 percent of all Finland's requirements. Says Landtman: "We just can't hide from the problems anymore."

The turnaround is perhaps most startling in Europe. Most citizens remain wary, but a rethink is underway in almost every European country--even those most traditionally hostile to nuclear power. In Italy, which junked its nuclear program after a referendum 18 years ago, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi talks openly of reversing policy. In Germany, where the new coalition government is free of members of the Greens, conservative politicians are cautiously debating the state's legal pledge to phase out nuclear power by 2020. A recent poll found that more than one in three Swedes today supports nuclear power, even though their own government is committed to closing down the industry.

Some countries, like Finland, are going further with plans to build new nuclear plants, not just to retain the old. Poland is scheduled to begin design work this year on two reactors, the first in its history. "The building of any gas plants in Poland right now would be madness," says government spokesman Roman Trechcinski. "The only solution we have left are the nuclear-power plants." Britain, struggling to meet its Kyoto targets, looks set for a nuclear comeback. …

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