Japan's blasts cast doubt on nuclear renaissance

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PARIS -- Switzerland freezes plans to build new nuclear plants, Germany raises questions about its nuclear future, and opposition to atomic reactor construction mounts from Turkey to South Africa.

Fears about nuclear safety that took a generation to overcome after the accidents at Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island are resurfacing around the globe.

They are casting new doubt on a controversial energy source that has seen a resurgence in recent years, amid worries over volatile oil prices and global warming.

"Europe has to wake up from its Sleeping Beauty slumber" about nuclear safety, Austria's Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich told reporters in Brussels. He suggested an EU-wide stress test for nuclear plants, much like European banks have been tested for their ability to cope with financial shocks.

Yet some experts and officials say those fears are overblown, given the exceptional nature of Japan's earthquake and ensuing tsunami. The Japanese blasts may slow the push for more nuclear plants, but appear unlikely to stop it, given the world's fast-growing energy needs.

The governments of Russia, China, Poland and even earthquake-prone Chile say they are sticking to their plans to build more reactors. Spain warned against hasty decisions.

Japan's nuclear plant explosions come as the U.S. government looks to expand its nuclear energy industry by offering companies tens of billions in financial backing. Administration officials said the U.S. would seek lessons from the Japanese crisis but said the events in Japan would not diminish the United States commitment to nuclear power.

"It remains a part of the president's overall energy plan," white House spokesman Jay Carney said. "When we talk about reaching a clean energy standard, it is a vital part of that."

Switzerland ordered a freeze on new plants or replacements "until safety standards have been carefully reviewed and if necessary adapted," Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said. The decision put on hold the construction of nuclear power stations at three sites approved by Swiss regulatory authorities.

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