Japan crisis revives global nuclear debate

By Keith B. Richburg
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 8:45 PM

BEIJING - The crisis in Japan has revived anti-nuclear passions around the world, putting governments on the defensive and undermining the nuclear power industry's recent renaissance as the clean energy of the future.

In the most dramatic move, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Tuesday that all seven of the country's nuclear power plants built before 1980 would be shut down, at least for now, as safety checks are conducted. The decision came one day after the government, facing strong public opposition to nuclear energy ahead of upcoming regional elections, suspended plans to extend the life of its aging plants.

Switzerland, with five reactors, announced Monday that it would freeze plans to build or replace nuclear power plants, and Austria called for new stress tests on plants across Europe.

Yet other countries, including Italy, where a Franco-Italian partnership is planning to start construction on a nuclear plant in 2013, have called for calm, with authorities saying the crisis should not derail plans to expand nuclear energy.

White House officials defended the use of nuclear power in the United States, which President Obama has embraced throughout his administration. "At this time, we don't have any information that would cause us to do anything different," Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said at a White House briefing Monday.

In France, where nuclear plants produce 80 percent of electricity, the Japanese calamity reenergized a long-dormant political debate about the country's heavy reliance on nuclear power.

Government officials sought to reassure the public that France's more than 50 nuclear plants are safe, and President Nicolas Sarkozy told his political coalition that the plants were among the safest in the world.

The main opposition Socialist Party was divided, with key leaders saying it would be foolhardy to abandon a nuclear energy program that has stood since the 1970s but several Socialist figures demanding a reconsideration of nuclear safety measures.

Europe Ecology-Greens Party activists, long opposed to nuclear power, called for a referendum on whether France should get out of the nuclear business and accused the government of playing down the risks.

"We have to end the myths," said Cecile Duflot, a prominent Green leader. "Zero-risk nuclear power production does not exist."

In Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - which will mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster this April - the crisis in Japan has served as a reminder of the dangers of nuclear power, but national leaders say they don't see any alternative.

Russia is building six new nuclear power plants and has plans for more. It also recently signed an agreement with Belarus to build one there.

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