U.S. and Europe Diverge Over Nuclear Energy

     BONN, Germany (CN) – In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the European Union began “stress tests” Wednesday for its 143 nuclear power plants.

     Though Switzerland and Germany declared their plans to leave nuclear power behind, the United States shows no intention of giving up an energy source that provides one-fifth of its power.
     The stress tests, announced last week by the European Commission, are intended to reassess the resistance of the continent’s 143 nuclear plants to natural and manmade risks, including airplane crashes and terrorist attacks.
     The commission developed the criteria for the tests with the European Nuclear Safety Regulators’ Group, after difficulties reaching consensus among national nuclear authorities from the EU’s 27 member countries.
     The tests involve a three-step process including self-assessments by nuclear plant operators, national checks on their credibility and review by an international team, which also has the possibility of physically inspecting the plants.
     A Greenpeace blog criticized this process, calling it “stress test lite,” since the safety checks are not independently verified. The Greenpeace blogger blamed pro-nuclear governments in the United Kingdom, France and the Czech Republic for watering down the tests.

Non-Nuclear Future for Germany, Switzerland
     Switzerland and Germany, meanwhile, have announced plans to withdraw all nuclear reactors within their borders from the electrical grid. The Swiss government suspended approval of three new plants, and intends to shut down its five operating reactors by 2034.
     Germany outlined a far more ambitious plan to be free from fission by 2022.
     After an earthquake off the coast of Japan caused failures within reactors at the Fukushima plant there in March, Germany took its seven oldest nuclear plants offline.
     An intention to phase out all nuclear power came to fruition after nine months of protracted negotiations between German ruling parties. The remaining six plants still operating in Germany are set to come off the grid by 2022.
     Switzerland gets about 40 percent of its power from nuclear energy, while Germany gets around 25 percent. The costs of the transition are difficult to calculate, but in Germany could involve an investment of about $1 billion per year in renewable energy sources.

U.S. Won’t Change Course
     Although some anti-nuclear activists expressed hope that the United States would follow the example of Germany, the strongest economy in the EU, the Obama administration shows no sign of backing away from atomic energy.
     A White House spokesman said Tuesday: “Our independent regulatory body ensures that we have the safest and most responsibly run nuclear energy industry in the world, and the president remains committed to nuclear energy as part of his clean energy agenda.”
     The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently emphasized the capability of the 104 nuclear plants within U.S. borders to cool reactor cores in the case of explosions, floods or power losses. An editorial by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko on Tuesday addressed specific accusations of lax safety enforcement.
     The U.S. nuclear-power program has not seen major expansion since 1979, when a reactor core meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania released radioactive gases.
     The federal agency approved 60 renewal licenses for existing plants, and a new reactor in Tennessee is set to come online next year.
     Disposal of spent nuclear materials remains a question mark for the United States, as national facilities are at near capacity. The Obama administration played a role in scuttling a proposed nuclear-waste-disposal site at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
     The United States gets about 20 percent of its power from 104 nuclear plants nationwide.
     Efforts to contain radioactive releases at the Fukushima reactors in Japan are ongoing.

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