Japan’s explosions cast doubt on nuclear renaissance

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.

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.

Will explosions at a tsunami-stricken Japanese nuclear plant halt what has come to be known as the nuclear renaissance?

Fears about nuclear safety that took a generation to overcome after the accidents at Chornobyl 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.”

Elsewhere, governments began questioning their vision of a nuclear-energized future amid rising threats of a meltdown at one Japanese reactor.

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.

Switzerland now has five nuclear power reactors that produce about 40 per cent of the country’s energy needs. It also has nuclear research reactors.

In Germany, the government said it is suspending for three months a decision to extend the life of its nuclear power plants. That also means that two older nuclear power plants will be taken off the grid shortly — at least for now — pending a full safety investigation, Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.

A previous government decided to shut all 17 German nuclear plants, but Merkel’s administration last year moved to extend their lives by an average 12 years.

“The pictures from Japan show us that nothing, even the worst, is unthinkable,” EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio.

The European Union called a meeting Tuesday of nuclear safety authorities to assess Europe’s preparedness in case of a nuclear emergency.

Individual EU members including Britain, Bulgaria and Finland also urged a nuclear safety review.

Meanwhile, opposition voices rose up in Turkey to renounce or scale back governments’ nuclear expansion plans. And anti-nuclear groups staged rallies around France, the world’s most nuclear-dependent country, as the government sought to reassure the public that the risks remain minimal.

Environmental group Earthlife Africa said it wants South Africa, the only African country with an existing nuclear plant, to follow Germany’s example. But South African government officials want to expand nuclear power.

German popular opinion continues to favour non-nuclear sources of energy. But elsewhere in Europe, people have become increasingly open to using nuclear power as memories fade of the accident in Chornobyl, Ukraine — the world’s worst nuclear accident, 25 years ago next month. Eastern Europe sees nuclear energy as a way of gaining a measure of independence from Russia’s burgeoning gas and oil empire.

Statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency show there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide, with 65 new facilities under construction. Construction last year was started on 14 new reactors — in China, Russia, India, Japan and Brazil. In 2005, in comparison, ground was broken for only three reactors.

Boosters have argued that new-design reactors pose fewer safety risks, and that nuclear-produced electricity doesn’t emit the pollution that causes global warming.

Even as Japan’s damaged reactors were beginning to deteriorate Friday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera told state television that “the new so-called smart technologies, are technologies that are absolutely earthquake-proof in terms of security. And that’s why we are studying this option, because Chile can’t categorically reject any alternative in energy generation.”

Pinera is planning to sign a nuclear energy accord with the U.S. during President Barack Obama’s visit to Santiago next week.

Experts said it was too early to evaluate all the consequences of the Japanese explosions.

“This is a massive earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami,” said Physics Prof. Paddy Regan of the University of Surrey at Guildford. “Imagine if this would have been next to a chemical plant or a gas plant that would have exploded. … There is a risk here but we have to keep the fears rational.”

———

Heilprin reported from Bern, Switzerland. Geir Moulson and Juergen Baetz in Berlin, George Jahn in Vienna, Raf Casert and Gabriele Steinhauser in Brussels and Federico Quilodran in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta identifies 1,183 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday

50.5% of all active cases are variants of concern

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie pose for a photo at the Mirror restaurant. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Alberta Health Services delivers ‘closure order’ to Mirror restaurant

Alberta Health Services says it has delivered a closure order to a… Continue reading

Flags bearers hold the Canadian flag high during the Flags of Remembrance ceremony in Sylvan Lake in this October file photo. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
New project to pay tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan

Flags of Remembrance scheduled for Sept. 11

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
Security and police block the entrance to GraceLife Church as a fence goes up around it near Edmonton on Wednesday April 7, 2021. The Alberta government has closed down and fenced off a church that has been charged with refusing to follow COVID-19 health rules. Alberta Health Services, in a statement, says GraceLife church will remain closed until it shows it will comply with public-health measures meant to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Hundreds gather to support Alberta church shut down for ignoring COVID-19 orders

SPRUCE GROVE, Alta. — Hundreds of people are gathered outside an Alberta… Continue reading

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces march during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 8, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces is developing contingency plans to keep COVID-19 from affecting its ability to defend the country and continue its missions overseas amid concerns potential adversaries could try to take advantage of the crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian special forces supported major Iraqi military assault on ISIL last month

OTTAWA — Some Canadian soldiers supported a major military offensive last month… Continue reading

A woman pays her repects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The joint public inquiry in response to the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia has announced a mandate that includes a probe of the RCMP response as well as the role of gender-based violence in the tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

PORTAPIQUE, N.S. — Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia’s… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Erin O’Toole says ‘I didn’t hide who I was’ running for Conservative leader

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole assured Conservative supporters that he never hid who… Continue reading

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, second from left, celebrates his goal with teammates, from left to right, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, of Sweden, during second period NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Jacob Markstrom earns shutout as Flames blank Oilers 5-0 in Battle of Alberta

CALGARY — It took Sean Monahan breaking out of his goal-scoring slump… Continue reading

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia's opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan's government, but they say Monday's throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province's economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s opposition parties acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented… Continue reading

A grizzly bear walks on a treadmill as Dr. Charles Robbins, right, offers treats as rewards at Washington State University's Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in this undated handout photo. Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails like those commonly used by people, which can affect land management practices in wild areas, says an expert who has written a paper on their travel patterns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Anthony Carnahan *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Grizzly bears prefer walking on gentle slopes at a leisurely pace like humans: study

VANCOUVER — Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails… Continue reading

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna said Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, its COVID-19 shot provides strong protection against the coronavirus that's surging in the U.S. and around the world. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether… Continue reading

Most Read