Trust Nuclear, Europe Energy Chiefs Urge
As the European Union tries to cut emissions of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and improve the security of its power supply, nuclear is coming back as an option, despite public fears arising from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
"We're facing a nuclear renaissance," said Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of French nuclear energy firm Areva.
"Nuclear's not the devil any more. The devil is coal," she told an energy conference in Madrid.
"The problem is people see it (the choice) as coal or renewable energy and they are still keeping nuclear behind the curtain."
Since the Chernobyl explosion, the world's worst nuclear accident, many people have held nuclear power on a sin list and many countries have shut atomic plants or are phasing them out.
Nonetheless, France generates three quarters of its energy from nuclear sources and Britain is considering building new plants, so executives said other countries just needed to educate people about nuclear safety and technological advances.
"We shouldn't rule out any source of energy but nuclear is almost a religious issue in Germany. Public opinion has to be changed before it can enjoy any revival," E.ON CEO Wulf Bernotat said.
Union Fenosa CEO Pedro Lopez Jimenez agreed, saying fears over nuclear power were "beyond any rational calculation" while EDF CEO Pierre Gadonneix said politicians had a "global responsibility" to get the public to accept nuclear.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, told the conference that there had to be a full and frank debate about nuclear power in the bloc and said the EU could help on research and safety.
While the public might still view nuclear as a demon two decades after Chernobyl, executives said it could now be re-established thanks to its modern credentials as a carbon-free power source in an age of global warming worries.
The fact that nuclear power plants do not depend on importing oil or gas from third countries also works in its favor at a time when geopolitical concerns and power plays can have huge effects on energy prices.
"You know what the cost of electricity is going to be for the next 60 years or so when you set up a plant," said Areva's Lauvergeon. "That makes it a very competitive play."
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