The media and internet have lately been brimming with commentary on the many ways in which the eastward expansion of the European Union may alter the nature of the existing body's economy and policies. The Economist has proposed an angle I haven't seen anyone else suggest: a possible revival of interest in nuclear power.
With a few notable exceptions, such as France, China, and until recently Japan, obtaining permits anywhere for a new nuclear power plant looked about as feasible teaching your horse to sing. But as the old saw tells us, the horse might just learn to sing, and that could happen if the Economist is correct in its assessment.
Certainly the EU will be inheriting a number of nuclear plants built with former Soviet technology. These can either be upgraded or decomissioned. But the latter choice entails replacing the lost electric generation, and that means more greenhouse gas emissions. Although the US isn't very interested in the Kyoto Treaty, it is still a Big Deal in Europe.
The EU has set some aggressive targets for adding renewable energy, but there is probably a limit to how many windmills you can put up without even the relatively good reception they've gotten so far turning sour. Nuclear remains the one large-scale alternative with no emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases.
As the Economist suggests, price will be as big a big hurdle as anti-nuclear concerns, so the challenge to industry is to come up with safe, economical reactors that can be built relatively quickly. Standardization will be a big help, since the lack of it was one of the chief contributing factors in driving the costs of nuclear out of reach in the US, along with post-Three Mile Island concerns. In a future posting I'll talk about some of the radically new reactor designs being proposed.
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