PARIS - The extreme hot summer in Europe is restricting nuclear energy generation and showing up the limits of nuclear power, leading environmental activists and scientists say.
The heat wave since mid-June has led authorities in France, Germany, Spain and elsewhere in Europe to override their own environmental norms on the maximum temperature of water drained from the plants' cooling systems.
The French government announced July 24 that nuclear power plants situated along rivers will be allowed to drain hot water into rivers at higher temperature. The measure is intended "to guarantee the provision of electricity for the country," according to an official note.
France has 58 nuclear power plants, which produce almost 80 percent of electricity generated in the country. Of these, 37 are situated near rivers, and use them as outlet for water from their cooling systems.
The drought accompanying the hot summer has reduced the volume of water in the rivers, and might force some power plants to shut down.
Under normal circumstances, environment rules limit the maximum temperature for waste water in order to protect river flora and fauna.
"For many years now, French authorities have defended nuclear power arguing that it is clean energy, good for the environment, and that it will help combat global warming, for it does not emit greenhouse gases," Stephane Lhomme, coordinator of the environmental network Sortir du Nucleaire (Phase Out Nuclear Power) told IPS.
"Now, with global warming leading to extreme hot summers, we are witnessing that it is the other way round," Lhomme said. "Global warming is showing the limits of nuclear power plants, and nuclear power is destroying our environment."
During the hot summer of 2003, French authorities had allowed nuclear power plants to drain excessively hot water into rivers, leading to considerable damage to flora and fauna, Lhomme said.
According to the minutes of the National Surveillance Committee on water drained from reactors August 21 and September 3, 2003, "hot water temperatures might have led to high concentrations of ammoniac, which is potentially toxic for the rivers' fauna."
The minutes point to a European norm on the concentration of ammoniac in rivers, which France did not respect.
Meanwhile France is importing some 2000 megawatts of power per day from neighbouring countries to compensate for shortages in production at nuclear power plants.
While the French authorities have overridden their own environmental norms, in Germany energy providers have slowed down some nuclear reactors to limit waste water temperature and to protect flora and fauna.
Reactors Kruemmel, Brunsbuettel and Brokdorf situated along the river Elbe which flows through Eastern and Northern Germany have all been slowed down. So have traditional fossil fuel power plants situated along the river Rhine.
The nuclear reactors Isar 1 near Munich, and Neckarwestheim near Stuttgart have being authorised to drain hotter water into the nearby rivers than normally allowed.
In Spain, the nuclear power plant at Santa Maria de Garona, one of eight Spanish reactors, was shut down last weekend due to the high temperatures recorded in the river Ebro, into which the reactor drains the water used in its cooling system.
The power plant, Spain's oldest, provides 20 percent of the electricity generated in the country.
German energy expert Hermann Scheer says the situation shows a need for radical change in policy. "We must massively invest in renewable energy sources, and get rid of nuclear power as soon as possible," he told IPS.
Scheer is president of Eurosolar, the European association for renewable energy resources, and winner of the 'Alternative Nobel prize' for his commitment to the environment.
In France, nuclear scientist Hubert Reeves urged the government to "invest massively" in renewable energy resources. "We are behind many of our European partners such as Germany, Denmark and Spain in this matter, and cannot wait until the energy crisis reaches its climax to find an alternative to our present model," he told IPS.
A crisis, he said, "is round the corner." Fossil energy sources are about to be exhausted, and "nuclear technology will not solve present problems within a reasonable period of time. We should abandon nuclear power and invest in alternative sources."
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