Nuclear incidents jangle EU nerves

Friday, June 6, 2008

Two safety scares at nuclear power stations in EU states Slovenia and the Czech republic in the past 48 hours were swiftly resolved, but will do little for Brussels' campaign to restore public confidence in the sector.

A water leak from the primary coolant unit in Slovenia's Krsko nuclear plant on Wednesday (4 June) afternoon forced the 25-year old facility to shut down its single reactor for emergency repairs.

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"There is no impact on the environment, the matter is under control," Slovenian Nuclear Safety Administration chief Andrej Stritar told Reuters, with Krsko to stay out of action for "a few days."

The leak triggered the European Community Urgent Radiological Information Exchange (ECURIE) mechanism, with the European Commission notifying all 27 EU states of the problem at 16:38 Brussels time.

A day earlier at 09:30 on Tuesday morning in the Czech republic, the 35-year old Dukovany plant's automated safety system cut output from one of its four reactors after a worker mistakenly turned off coolant pipes.

The incident did not cause environmental damage either, the facility's spokesman, Petr Spilka, told Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, but it did release a cloud of white steam above the reactor building.

The two scares come amid a concerted effort by the European Commission and the nuclear industry to raise public confidence in the sector, following a long lull in investments after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

"Nuclear energy can of course make a major contribution to [the] battle against climate change," commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said at the European Nuclear Energy Forum in Prague in late May.

"Nuclear energy also helps to enhance the EU's security of energy supplies and it increases diversification of our energy sources and reduces our dependence on imported gas."

The EU houses 152 reactors in 15 countries, which feed 14 percent of EU energy consumption. But market share is set to fall by 2020, despite six new start-ups in Finland, France, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia to 2015.

Hostile public opinion is a major reason for the under-investment, with just 20 percent overall of EU citizens favouring nuclear power due to safety fears and concerns over what to do with waste.

Public jitteriness was exposed on Wednesday in Poland and Ukraine, when some internet news sites circulated rumours of a surge in radioactivity levels at the old Chernobyl site and in southeast Poland.

The false alarm saw people calling emergency services to ask if it is safe to go outside, with the Ukrainian government later issuing a statement that radioactivity levels around the country remain at normal levels.

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