Japan’s blasts cast doubt on nuclear renaissance

PARIS (AP) — 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 and other worries 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 Chernobyl 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 and Poland said they are sticking to plans to build more reactors. Even earthquake-prone Chile says it won’t discard a nuclear option. 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 percent 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.

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