PRAGUE - The EU seems to be backing nuclear energy as the response to global warming and gas dependency, but civic groups warn that safety and waste processing should be preconditions for the industry's growth.
These issues were debated in Prague May 22-23 at the second European Nuclear Energy Forum, an EU (European Union) initiative to discuss opportunities and risks of nuclear energy.
Civic groups criticised their extremely low representation at the event, seen by them as a gathering of nuclear energy supporters lobbying the EU.
"There is no energy technology free of risks. We have to live with that and do our best choices among existing possibilities," Ulla Birgitta Sirkeinen from the EU's Economic and Social Committee, a consultative body, told participants. "This committee has the view that nuclear energy is needed."
"We all share the (EU) objective of reducing greenhouse emissions by 20 percent by 2020," Nicole Fontaine, a European Parliamentarian, told participants. "Although there are many solutions such as renewable energy, reality dictates we use nuclear energy, which covers 32 percent of European energy needs.
"It doesn't have the greenhouse effect, and it allows ensuring security of supply," she said, hinting at the high European dependency on Russian gas, to which many believe nuclear power could be an alternative.
The EU is the biggest nuclear energy generator in the world.
Czech politicians, who named their country one of the leaders in the field, stressed that only nuclear power can ensure freedom and independence by reducing over-reliance on Russian gas.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek attacked "ideologically motivated" environmentalist groups for their negative stance on nuclear energy, and called nuclear waste treatment a "pseudo-problem" of a political, not technical nature.
Topolanek said the EU's organisation of this conference was another sign of Brussels becoming favourably inclined towards nuclear energy.
But the whole of the EU is not going nuclear, said Patricia Lorenz from Friends of the Earth. EU members such as Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Austria all have doubts about nuclear power.
"There is strong pressure at this conference from industry and political groups to give support for nuclear energy, and this is not legitimate, because many countries are not nuclear and the public is mostly against it," Lorenz said.
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While most participants spoke of how better to tackle "inevitable" increase in energy consumption, Lorenz believes the key lies in reducing consumption.
"No one wants to hear this because it means many changes in transport," she told IPS. "But only when consumption goes down we can bring in renewables.
"No technology can maintain our level of consumption," she added. "Not even nuclear: uranium will also run out in 40 or 50 years."
Industry representatives seemed less concerned. "Renewable energy cannot provide us with basic electricity, and the question is politically important because lots of jobs are at stake," Thomas Mock, head of the German association of energy intensive industry consumers told the conference.
Walter Hohlefelder from the German energy company E.ON seemed confident that controversies over nuclear energy could be minimised by harmonised safety rules, saying these would bring transparency and public acceptability.
Fontaine also said the harmonisation of rigorous safety standards was one of the objectives of the forum. A high-level group is expected to present a proposal to the EU Council in July.
But Andrej Stritar, acting chairman of the High Level Group on Nuclear Safety and Waste Management of the Council, suggested that enthusiasts of "nuclear renaissance" should "slow down and reconsider everything, especially issues of nuclear safety."
But Electricite de France board member Bruno Lescoeur said "the barrel of oil costs 135 dollars, and it is urgent to act; the industry cannot wait for convergence to emerge on all subjects on the industry, it has to implement solutions quickly."
Critics have claimed that efforts at harmonisation could be an excuse to lower standards. Lorenz also brought up the issue of liability. "Industry is protected against potential threats; it must be liable to pay for what happens," she said.
The activist also pointed to one of the most contentious issues. "There is no solution for waste; industry is not coping well with this problem and is not really trying. The de facto solution has been to export to Russia, and this will remain the solution."
Lorenz said "it is not possible to find an effective way to treat nuclear waste; they proved it themselves by not coming up with anything. There is no affordable technology for the amounts of waste involved." The EU generates 40,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste a year.
But there are enough optimists around at the political level. "There will be a feasible solution within a short period, I believe, in the development of science and of humankind," János Toth, president of the energy section of the European Economic and Social Committee told IPS. "If you look back in history, all energy sources have progressed, solutions have always been found."
Copyright © 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service.