Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl disaster, Europe is still divided on the use of nuclear energy.
But the Fukushima crisis stirred new fears that could slow down nuclear expansion.
“The accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant will upset the development of nuclear power in the coming years”, including in Europe, French-based market research company Xerfi Global said in a study published after Japan’s quake.
If the nuclear industry has revived since 2000 with a planned capacity extension across Europe, Asia and the US, the boom “seems compromised today though maybe not completely brought to a halt”, Xerfi added.
Twenty-five years after the trauma caused by Chernobyl, Fukushima could have a more damaging effect on European public opinion, Aslihan Tumer, a Greenpeace International campaigner for energy, told AFP.
“After Chernobyl, the nuclear industry insisted that it was an old, Soviet technology and the country was not known for its safety culture. But when it happened in Japan, which is known for its safety culture, it became clear that this can happen anywhere,” she said.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the price of the “Fukushima effect” in what she called a “painful defeat” in a crucial state poll.
Merkel last year decided to extend the the life of 17 German nuclear reactors.
In a country where nuclear power has been unpopular for years, the accident in Japan reinforced the public’s rejection.
More than 60 per cent of the Germans want their country to give up nuclear energy without delay, a poll showed.
Public support for nuclear energy also decreased in other European countries.
In Britain, 35 per cent either strongly or slightly support a programme to replace the UK’s existing reactors, according to a GfK NOP survey commissioned by Friends of the Earth. In November 2010, the figure was 47 per cent.
In Bulgaria, public support for nuclear power also dropped after Fukushima though a majority of the population favoured the construction of a second nuclear plant alongside the Soviet-era Kozlodui one.
Even in France, which produces 75 per cent of its electricity in nuclear plants, recent polls show that more than 80 per cent of the French want to replace atomic energy by renewables. About two thirds of those polled said they “fear” nuclear power plants.
Despite the growing concerns among the public, European states still diverge on the future of nuclear power.
For nuclear-free countries like Denmark, Austria and Portugal, the future is without atomic energy.
Germany last week said it was trying to move faster towards nuclear-free energy production by boosting wind power among others.
On the contrary, France and most of the Eastern European countries still argue in favour of extra capacity.
Even if they were closer to Chernobyl than their Western counterparts, most Eastern Europeans at the time lacked information on the scale of the catastrophe because of the black-out imposed under communism.
If French president Nicolas Sarkozy officially supports nuclear expansion because of the “need to reduce carbon gas emissions”, Eastern European states are more preoccupied with securing energy independence after living for years under Soviet influence.
“In Eastern Europe, the desire not to depend on a single energy provider, i.e. Russia, is stronger than in Western Europe for historical reasons,” Mihaela Stiopol, a Romanian director of the European Nuclear Society, told AFP.
Hence the unfaltering support for atomic power in the countries behind the former Iron Curtain.
“I can’t imagine us halting nuclear plants. In our country, this would result in economic problems on the verge of an economic disaster. In other words, we definitely won’t do it,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas said after Japan’s disaster.
Prague wants to build two more units at its Temelin nuclear power station.
The situation is similar in neighbouring Slovakia where two new reactors are being built at Mochovce.
However, the EU member-states resolved to revisit safety at their 143 nuclear reactors. The so-called “stress-tests” should lead to the closure of plants that fail them.
Experts believe the radiation leakage at Fukushima will likely lead to a slow-down in the plans to build 24 new reactors in Europe.
Italy said it could extend to two years a moratorium on its nuclear building plans.
“We think that in general existing nuclear power plants will continue to function but decisions on new projects will be more difficult,” Stiopol said.
CHERNOBYL – THE HUMAN COST
Every year, Volodymyr Palkin spends at least two months in a Kiev hospital. He was one of hundreds of thousands of rescue workers sent to fight the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant and says his health has been permanently ruined by his work.
Yet 25 years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986, huge controversy remains over the true extent of the damage caused to health, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands of fatal cancers to far fewer.
An estimated 600,000 rescue workers, known as liquidators, from across Belarus, Russia and Ukraine were sent to Chernobyl in the years after the disaster, working in hazardous conditions to clean up the contaminated wreckage.
Palkin, now 69, was one of the first wave of emergency staff. Sitting on his hospital bed he showed pictures of his former colleagues who were among the 30 people confirmed to have died in the first weeks after the disaster.
He was ordered to work on April 26 and was then hospitalised a few weeks later with haemorrhages in his throat and intestines. He says he was ordered by the authorities to register only half of the radiation exposure he received.
“I had excellent health before. But now I can hardly walk, I suffer problems with my thyroid and my teeth are disintegrating,” said Palkin, who has spent two months each year in hospital since 1986.
He complained of the size of his pension – $202, most of which he said goes on medicine. As a certified “liquidator” he also receives a monthly payment of 300 hryvnias ($38) for food and a 50 per cent discount on household bills.
Palkin shares his hospital room with Volodymyr Zabolotny, 70, a fellow veteran of Chernobyl, who however puts his health problems down to old age rather than his work in the disaster zone.
Organisations including environmental campaigning group Greenpeace have warned there could be as many as 100,000 fatal cancers that can be directly attributed to Chernobyl, many affecting the liquidators.
But such conclusions are vehemently contested by the UN Scientific Committee on Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), whose latest report in February estimated the death toll from Chernobyl to be in the dozens and not the thousands.
Along with the two Chernobyl workers who were killed by the explosion and the 28 other staff and firemen who died from radiation shortly afterwards, it says just 19 of the radiation survivors died up to 2006, for various reasons not usually associated with radiation exposure.
The only major health effect for the wider population was 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer that were due to children drinking contaminated milk at the time, of which 15 had proved fatal by 2005. Thyroid cancer is considered to be treatable.
As for the liquidators, “to date apart from an increase in the incidence of leukaemia and cataracts among those who receives higher doses, there is no evidence of health effects that can be attributed to radiation exposure,” UNSCEAR said.
Such conclusions are politically explosive in Ukraine where liquidator groups have long blamed their illnesses on Chernobyl and have bitterly criticised the post-Soviet authorities for insufficient compensation.
Some experts have said that possibly the worst health legacy of Chernobyl is a mental rather than physical one, with those affected traumatised by the memory of April 1986, forced relocation and above all the sense that they are victims of a nuclear catastrophe.
One voice which has dissented loudly from the line of the UN agencies is Belarussian nuclear expert Yury Bandazhevsky, who was jailed for several years from 2001 on corruption charges supporters say were trumped up as punishment for his criticism of Minsk’s handling of the nuclear contamination.
“A proper system for estimating the consequences has yet to be developed at an international level,” Bandazhevsky, who has been researching the effects of the disaster since 1987, told AFP.
“State structures have for the last 25 years done everything to cover up the information for the sake of the nuclear energy lobby which is the most powerful lobby in the world and dictates the conditions today.”
But Ukrainian medical researcher David Belyi, who has co-authored several international papers on Chernobyl, backed the scepticism over the large toll from Chernobyl, even though he admitted there could still be gaps in our knowledge.
“It’s very hard to estimate the effects of the radiation,” he told AFP.
“Today all the attempts to connect the radiation with illnesses of the internal organs amongst the affected population _ with the exception of thyroid cancer _ have not resulted in success.”
“We cannot say that gastric ulcers or heart disease are encountered more often or in a particular form among the liquidators.”
He strongly denied witnessing any pressure from the government or big nuclear energy business to suppress any statistics.
Life expectancy for those affected by Chernobyl is no different from the World Health Organisation’s life expectancy estimate for men and women in Ukraine of 61 and 73 years respectively, he said.
“So far we have not shown other effects. But in the future we should not be afraid of re-examining our knowledge and acknowledging any mistakes,” he said.