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20 Years After Chernobyl Europe Debates Nuclear Power

Twenty years after an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, European countries remain deeply divided over the use of nuclear power. Some are embracing nuclear energy, while others are phasing out their old plants. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports that Chernobyl's legacy also remains deeply problematic across Europe.

The Chernobyl disaster occurred two decades ago, but the jury is still out in Europe over just how much death and destruction it wrought. The explosion at the nuclear power plant most seriously affected Ukraine, along with nearby Belarus and Russia.

But the blast also spread a nuclear cloud across much of Western Europe. A U.N. sponsored study published last year concluded that fewer than 50 people died as an immediate result of the accident at a Ukraine nuclear power plant, and 4000 people died as result of Chernobyl-related cancer. The investigation by 100 scientists predicted that in the long term, no more than 9000 deaths might be attributed to the effects of longer-term radiation.

A number of experts back the UN study. That includes Andre Aurengo, head of the nuclear medicine section of La Pitie-Salpetriere hospital group in France.

Aurengo told French radio there was not a huge difference in the number of cancer cases and genetic problems seen in areas directly affected by Chernobyl and in areas that were not. But he said psychological scars could have created health problems.

But a new study commissioned by Green Party members in the European parliament concludes Chernobyl was far more destructive. It asserts the number of deaths was about 15 times higher than the U.N. study suggests.

Yet another study released by the environmental group Greenpeace last week estimates the Chernobyl-related cancer deaths were even higher. Frederic Marillier is a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace France.

Marillier says that beyond the deaths, many people have suffered from digestive, respiratory and cardiovascular problems as a result of the radiation fallout from Chernobyl. He argues the U.N.-sponsored report underestimated the number of deaths partly for political reasons. The study was supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which these critics say has an interest in promoting nuclear energy.

Despite Chernobyl's controversy, a number of European countries are forging ahead in nuclear power. Foremost among them is France, where about 80 percent of the country's electricity is generated by 58 nuclear plants. The country is considering building a 59th plant.

Finland and Poland are also building new nuclear power stations. The British government is launching an energy debate this year that might result in building new nuclear plants, and Lithuania and the Netherlands have delayed phasing out their nuclear generators.

Steve Kidd is director of strategy and research at the World Nuclear Association - a London-based trade association supporting nuclear power. He says many European countries are worried about relying on oil and gas supplies from unstable countries.

"This energy security aspect in Europe has suddenly become more pressing with the increasing dependence on particularly gas from Russia and also from North Africa," Kidd says. "And that is something that over the last year or so has encouraged some people to look into nuclear where they were formerly not looking."

As oil prices soar, nuclear energy is increasingly looking attractive economically as well.

The environment is also a factor. Nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, which most scientists say is a major cause of global warming. Under the Kyoto protocol, European countries must sizably cut their carbon-dioxide emissions.

Goulven Graillat, heads economics and industrial strategy at France's E.D.F. electricity company. E.D.F. runs the country's nuclear power plants.

"More and more people are moving, as we did, in the direction not to oppose any form of energy. But to have a mix starting with energy efficiency," Graillat says. "Renewables of course, but it is not really sufficient. I think that more and more people, when they think deeply on all the different factors, the Kyoto protocol and also the greenhouse case, and the price of fossil fuels - the coal, but mainly oil and gas - they begin to think that nuclear has a role to play."

But not all of Europe is embracing nuclear energy. Sweden and Germany have banned building new plants, and largely phased out existing ones - although Germany's ruling Christian Democrats have suggested they might try to overturn the ban. Other countries are also skeptical about nuclear energy.

Twenty years after Chernobyl, nuclear critics like Marillier of Greenpeace argue that nuclear energy remains unsafe.

Marillier says experts once argued the risk of a nuclear accident was almost non-existent. But that was before Chernobyl. Even today, he notes, the risk of another explosion remains. And he believes that fear is one reason why nuclear energy will continue to be problematic in Europe.