European Press Review As Japan Reels from Disaster, EU Debates Nuclear Future

The nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan is sending a collective gasp across the European Union. Are our own power stations safe? Should we relinquish this form of energy? Presseurop reviews the landscape of European editorial pages in the wake of Fukushima.

As the full scope of Japan's nuclear catastrophe becomes clear, the European press is wringing its hands over the future of nuclear power plants.
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As the full scope of Japan's nuclear catastrophe becomes clear, the European press is wringing its hands over the future of nuclear power plants.


Editor's Note: The following European press review has been compiled for SPIEGEL Internationl by our partner site Presseurop in Paris.


Whatever the ultimate scale of the nuclear accident underway at the Fukushima plant in Japan, the ground in Europe is already trembling. "The debate that seemed to be fading away with the memory of Chernobyl has come back with brutal insistence," notes the conservative Le Figaro.

The Paris daily explains that what is happening in Japan is dealing "an extremely hard blow to the side of the nuclear power sector globally." It comes following soaring oil prices in 2008 that "permitted talk of a resurgence in nuclear power for civilian use around the world" and the desire of "Brussels, urged on by Paris, to rank nuclear power among 'carbon-free energy sources', just like hydroelectric, solar or wind power."

"In no region of the world is nuclear energy as important as it is in Europe," underlines conservative German daily Die Welt. While nuclear power supplies on average 15 percent of global electricity, the 144 plants in Europe produce 30 percent of European electricity. Seventy-one percent of EU citizens live in a country with reactors on their own soil.

Today, however, writes Le Figaro, "those opposed to nuclear power are regaining strength throughout Europe. In Germany, where the conservative-liberal government of Angela Merkel voted in the autumn of 2009 to extend the shelf-life of the country's 17 nuclear reactors; ... in Austria, a country traditionally hostile to nuclear energy, whose environment minister, Nikolaus Berlakovich, has pleaded for a 'stress test' for European plants; ... in Britain, where the Cameron government has revived its plant construction program and in October identified eight new sites, the energy minister, Chris Huhne, has said he supports an investigation 'to learn the necessary lessons' from the event, while the government will decide in June whether to authorize use of the EPR (European Pressurized Reactor) technology from Areva and EDF."

The shock has been enough to bring us to " the end of the nuclear era," SPIEGEL has no hesitation in headlining. The German weekly demands that the doctrine of zero risk be revisited: "Admittedly, Japan is in an earthquake zone, which puts it at greater risk than countries like Germany and France. But Japan also happens to be a leading industrialized nation, a country where well-trained, pedantically precise engineers build the world's most advanced and reliable cars. When the Chernobyl accident occurred, Germany's nuclear industry managed to convince itself, and German citizens, that aging reactors and incapable, sloppy engineers in Eastern Europe were to blame. Western reactors, or so the industry claimed, were more modern, better maintained and simply safer. It is now clear how arrogant this self-assured attitude is. ... All that's needed is the right chain of fatal circumstances. Fukushima is everywhere."

A German Plant in a Seismic Zone

For years, reports Vienna's Der Standard, "doubts have been voiced about the safety of eastern European plants such as those at Mochovce (Slovakia) and Temelin (Czech Republic), near the Austrian border." When it comes to power in Germany, though, the criticism is more muted. As it happens, for example, "we've known for years that the Neckarwestheim plant in Baden-Wurttemberg is in a seismic zone," the paper writes.

This vulnerability reminds us that "nuclear issues haven't yet come up with clear answers. Is the technology controllable? Can the plants be made safer? Can safe disposal of waste be guaranteed?" "It's up to the EU to launch inspections of all nuclear installations in Europe," maintains the paper, which considers the proposal by Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Belakovich to conduct stress tests for nuclear power plants to be a "step in the right direction."

Prudence or hysteria? Since 1979, when radiation leaked from the Three Mile Island plant in the United States, "we have made great technological strides forward," Hospodáské noviny points out. Unlike in 1986, the date of the Chernobyl disaster, "there is no longer any communist regime that as a matter of principle cares not a whit about the safety of its people," and most of Europe does not lie within a seismically active region. For that reason, the Czech newspaper assures its readers, "to abandon nuclear power would be even more absurd, given that alternative energy sources are limited." "The proper response to Fukushima," the newspaper concludes, "is not to dump nuclear energy in a panic, but to draw the right conclusions from what happened and improve safety measures."

The Fukushima accident should certainly not be underestimated, writes Sergio Rizzo in an editorial in Italy's Corriere della Sera. On the other hand, "the emotion understandably caused by this tragedy should not determine our fundamental energy policy choices. We've done it already and we burned our fingers: the anti-nuclear referendum of 1987 was passed by a large majority because of the shock over the accident at Chernobyl." But instead of leading to the promised green energies, the vote that approving shutting down Italian nuclear plants has led instead to a new dependence on oil.

This is the line taken by Belgium's De Standaard: "We have to pay the price for our way of life," since "as we are not prepared to radically curtail our consumption, we must accept that electricity at affordable prices comes with some risks." It's in this context that, by coincidence, the Belgian government this week launched a campaign to "inform the public on possible protective measures in the event of nuclear accidents."

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