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Thursday, 15 June, 2000, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Nuclear doubts gnaw deeper
Japanese demonstrators
Japan has big plans for nuclear power - and a strong protest movement
By Environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Nuclear energy began with very high hopes.

Walter Marshall, one of its pioneers in the United Kingdom, told Britons it would provide energy "too cheap to meter".

It was going to usher in an era of abundant, clean power, an end to the filth and smoke of coal-fired power plants.

But that is not how it has worked out.

Agonising

Germany's decision to abandon nuclear power follows similar agonising in many other countries.

Lenin in Pripyat
Only Lenin remains in the evacuated town built for Chernobyl staff
Sweden decided not long ago to phase out its nuclear plants, and has already shut one. It is now importing energy from Denmark, generated from fossil fuels, and further closures may be politically difficult.

Across much of the world, existing nuclear stations are being allowed to work on to the end of their useful lives, but plans to build new ones to replace them are thin on the ground.

And the voices calling for an end to nuclear power are increasingly those of hard-headed analysts, not simply of idealistic environmental campaigners.

Ambitious programmes

The one region bucking the trend is East Asia, where several countries have relatively ambitious nuclear programmes.


It's fair to say the industry is feeling a bit beleaguered in some countries

Nuclear analyst
Japan, strapped by a chronic lack of natural resources, has two reactors under construction.

Despite the jolt to public confidence from the Tokaimura accident last year, it plans to start work on four more in 2002, another three the following year, two in 2005, and a further six in 2006.

China has three reactors working already, and seven under construction.

In western Europe, the picture is very different. One nuclear analyst told BBC News Online: "It's fair to say the industry is feeling a bit beleaguered in some countries.

Secrecy

"In the UK, where all the older Magnox power stations are to close over the next 15 years, people are rather depressed.


Windscale
Windscale: Scene of the first major nuclear accident
"In much of the rest of Europe things are pretty quiet. They're certainly not upbeat."

The analyst described the US nuclear industry by contrast as "optimistic - there's new money for research and development. The mood there's changing, though there's little concrete to support it."

Part of the nuclear industry's problem is its ingrained habit of secrecy, inherited from the military programmes which spawned it.

In the UK it has a sorry record of being economical with the truth, with the falsifying of records at British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) only the most recent example.

Mistrust

There is still deep mistrust of the civil industry on the part of people who believe it to be inseparable from the military embrace.

Part of the problem concerns the disposal of wastes which will remain radioactive for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.

So far nobody has come up with a safe answer. And a massive problem is the industry's safety record.

The world knows of at least three major nuclear accidents - Windscale (UK) in 1957, Three Mile Island (US) in 1979, and Chernobyl (USSR) in 1986.

The potential for a catastrophically bad accident remains, and while it does the industry has an almost unclimbable mountain of distrust to overcome.

Finally, not many people now believe that nuclear power is the only way of avoiding burning fossil fuels, with all they imply for climate change.

Nuclear power is one way, but there are many others. And they involve fewer blind leaps of faith into the far distant future.

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