PARIS – Nuclear power, its image darkened by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, appears to be making a comeback of sorts in Europe as the Continent struggles to meet energy needs, faces higher bills for imported oil and honours its pledge to cut carbon pollution.

The industry may still be eyed with suspicion in the world’s most environmentally conscious region, but today it is confidently presenting itself as a cheap, clean and reliable provider of energy.

Little more than a year ago, that argument that would have raised guffaws in Europe.

But things have changed, thanks to continuing unrest in oil-producing countries in the Middle East and the rise in the cost of a barrel of oil.

France is the most conspicuous example. Its two houses of parliament have just approved the first reading of a law that shapes the country’s future energy supplies.

It says the nation must retain self-sufficiency and nuclear should retain a “significant share” of the energy mix.

How big is not spelt out, but – to the damnation of Green groups – it will clearly account for a majority share over the next 20 years or so.

The bill incorporates measures for extending by 10 years the 30-year operating life for existing reactors and for building an experimental pressurised water reactor by 2015 that will be the test-bed for the next generation.

“The brand-new orientation law on energy, drawn up without any democratic debate, continues to push France down a [nuclear] one-way street,” said the French branch of Friends of the Earth, bitterly.

“The argument put forward that nuclear helps offset the greenhouse gas emissions is just bogus. The industry’s enormous overcapacity is a complete discouragement to energy savings.”

France is more nuclear-dependent than any country in the world: three-quarters of its electricity needs are met by its array of 59 nuclear reactors, a programme launched during the first oil shock 30 years ago, and which has cost some $160 billion.

Adding to the pressure on oil is France’s undertakings to reduced greenhouse gas emissions in accord with the Kyoto Protocol.

To that end, the energy law offers major incentives to promote solar, wind, biomass and other renewable energy sources. France aims to derive at least 20 per cent of its national electricity needs from “Green” sources by 2010.

Ever since the 1974 oil shock, France has had a “nuclear consensus,” where the public acquiesced in the huge dependence on nuclear power, provided it was safe and cheap.

Until the 2002 change of government, in which conservatives replaced a left-wing coalition, the future of the nuclear industry was in doubt.

The present generation of nuclear reactors was heading towards the end of its designed life, and environmentalists were confident they could put the atom on the run.

But then nagging questions began to be asked. If nuclear were phased out, wouldn’t that mean a bigger dependence on dirty fossil fuels? And how could renewables quickly deliver the raw megawatts needed for a large, modern economy and energy-gobbling homes?

Then the latest oil crisis erupted. Oil prices surged in response to the Iraq war and terrorism in Saudi Arabia, a reminder that crude is an unreliable and volatile source.

France is not alone in this shift of opinion. Sweden, Belgium and Germany – countries where there is a ferocious Green lobby – have either abandoned plans to scrap their nuclear plants or delayed phasing them out.

Germany’s plants are scheduled to close by 2020. But the nuclear industry, for years a favoured target of young Germans, is now lobbying hard for a postponement of up to 2038, thanks to technical updates.

“We are making ourselves economically dependent on a few oil-exporting countries and that could threaten the long-term security of supplies,” says Ralf Gueldner, who heads the German subsidiary of French nuclear-plant maker Framatome.

More dismaying to diehard environmentalists is that part of the Green movement is now toying with the idea of living with nuclear.

In this minority view, nuclear is indeed dangerous, but probably a less-immediate peril than global warming. It could be a useful bridging source until renewables become cheaper and more energy efficient.

“Only one immediately available source does not cause global warming, and that is nuclear energy,” says James Lovelock, the British scientist who became a Green icon for developing the “Gaia Hypothesis” in the mid-1960s, which sees the Earth as a living thing that retaliates against those who wound and threaten it.

“We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources. Civilisation is in imminent danger. Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media.”

Power plays

* France says nuclear power should retain a “significant share” of the country’s energy mix.

* Sweden, Belgium and Germany have either abandoned plans to scrap their nuclear plants, or delayed their phase-out.

Herald Feature: Conservation and Environment