The Russian invasion of Georgia laid in stark terms, as if it needed reminding, that Europe is addicted to natural gas supplies from beyond the Caucasus. But nuclear power, seen as one solution to the problem of ‘energy security’ is back in a big way and, despite a number of recent safety concerns, the case for atomic energy has arguably never been stronger.

BY TIM PROBERT

The term ‘energy security’ is often used, at least in Europe, as a euphemism for ‘not being over reliant on Russian natural gas’. The recent conflict between Russia and Georgia has once again highlighted the importance of Russia’s gas supplies to the European Union and, as oil prices rise to $100-plus, the potential for energy reserves to be used as a political weapon.

Such actions could harm Russia almost as much – it is just as reliant on European energy revenues as Europe is on Russian energy – but the threat of turning off the taps, as it did to Ukraine in 2006, or redirecting supplies to Asia, is real.

We have been here before, of course. The oil shocks of 1973 after the Yom Kippur war and the later 1979 shock caused by the Iranian Revolution led several nations to respond by attempting to reduce their reliance on foreign energy supplies.

France went nuclear. The country now has 58 operating nuclear reactors that produce 77 per cent of its electricity needs. More than 30 years later both developed and developing countries, faced with rising fossil fuel prices and the need for new electricity capacity, are now embracing atomic energy with vigour.

According to figures released by the World Nuclear Organization in August, there are now 439 nuclear power reactors operating in 30 countries plus Taiwan, with a combined capacity of about 370 GW. In 2007, these provided 2608 billion kWh, or about 16 per cent of the world’s electricity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has significantly increased its projection of world nuclear generating capacity. It now anticipates at least 60 new plants will be operational within the next 15 years, with between 450 GW to 690 GW in place by 2030, up to 85 per cent more than actually operating in 2008.

In all, more than 90 power reactors with a total net capacity of almost 1000 GW are planned and more than 200 more are proposed. Most reactors on order or planned are in the Asian region; China alone has plans for 24 nuclear plants and outline proposals for another 76, according to the Economic Research Council, using figures from the International Energy Agency and the IAEA.

So recent reports from France and Spain, two of the more established nuclear operators, that safety issues have threatened the viability of their nuclear industries has come as some concern.

Late last month, Iberdrola and Endesa, two of Spain’s leading electricity companies, were accused of cutting costs at nuclear power stations at the expense of safety. The Catalan regional government said that a failure to invest had caused several incidents at two nuclear stations including a leak, which led to thousands of people having to undergo radiation tests.

Meanwhile in France, Areva last month went public with its intention to invest €20 million to improve health and environmental monitoring at the Tricastin reactor complex after a series of safety scares. Incidents included 100 employees of nuclear plant operator EDF being contaminated by radioactive particles that escaped from a pipe on 23 July.

The incidents have been a shot in the arm for politicians and organizations with an anti-nuclear stance. In Germany, state-owned Helmholtz Institute for Scientific Research confirmed recently that radioactive brine has been found leaking at the Asse-II former salt mine in Lower Saxony since 1988.

The mine was closed in 1964 and converted to an “experimental” nuclear facility in 1967. Now it officially holds up to 130 000 metal drums of low- and mid-level radioactive waste at eight times above ‘safe’ levels.

A grim reminder of the potential hazards of nuclear energy will rekindle the anti-nuclear fire in the German Green movement’s belly at a time when noises emanating from Berlin sound as if the nuclear phase-out policy may well be reversed.

All of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are scheduled to be phased out by 2020. However, a report released in August by the Political Energy Programme, an expert panel of top German scientists and economists created by Economics Minister Michael Glos, recommended extending the planned use of German nuclear power plants by eight years, from a current 32 years up to “at least 40 years”.

If not, then in ten years Germany would need to generate twice as much energy from gas as it does today, said the report. Thus, the experts recommended that to avoid many billions of euros in extra costs for consumers, a decision must be made “as quickly as possible – at latest, at the beginning of the next legislative period” to revoke the phase-out policy.

Whether Herr Glos will implement the Political Energy Programme’s recommendations remains to be seen. The possible alternative – to become ever more dependent on ever costlier Russian natural gas – may be the greater of two political evils.

Germany’s situation is a snapshot of the problems faced by many nations faced with the triple challenges of ‘keeping the lights on’, mitigating carbon emissions and energy security. The nuclear option appears to offer steps in the right direction towards adressing all three.