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Europe Reviews Nuclear Power

The earthquake and tsunami damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant located in the town of Okuma in the Futaba District of Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, March 14, 2011

Japan's nuclear accident has sparked fears about the safety and future of nuclear energy in Europe.

Already a number of European governments have reacted to Japan’s nuclear explosion, which has leaked dangerous levels of radiation after a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the northeastern part of the country Friday.

Switzerland has frozen plans to build new nuclear plants.

Germany says it will close seven of its aging nuclear power plants and will delay a decision on whether to extend the lifeline of others.

A former government had decided to close all 17 of German’s nuclear plants, but the current government, headed by Angela Merkel, has moved to extend their use.

Other European countries say they will be carrying out safety checks. France said Tuesday it will be checking the safety of all 58 of its nuclear power reactors.

Protesters against nuclear energy demonstrate in front of the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2011
Protesters against nuclear energy demonstrate in front of the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2011
Jan Haverkamp, the European Union nuclear expert for the environmental campaign group, Greenpeace, says it is good news if European nations wake up to the risks of nuclear power.

"That is a good thing. What is a less good thing is that some countries who are developing nuclear power are not looking at their program in spite of what is happening in Japan," said Jan Haverkamp. "And then we talk specifically about Slovakia, about Poland, also the Italian government does not want to seem to wake up out of its slumber."

Italy’s environment minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, said Monday that government plans to reintroduce nuclear energy are unchanged despite the situation in Japan.

Italians are set to vote in the coming months on whether they want to block the government’s policy of bringing nuclear plants back. In a referendum almost 25 years ago, Italians decided to get rid of the facilities.

Havercamp says a 1986 explosion at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, in the then-Soviet republic of Ukraine, made many people wary of nuclear power. It was the world's worst nuclear disaster and, according to one United Nations study, may eventually cause the deaths of up to 9,000 people.

But Haverkamp says in recent years, many European countries have been embracing nuclear power.

"There is a lot of talk about wanting to revive nuclear power, and I think that what is happening right now under our eyes at this moment is a stark reminder that we might have to be a bit more critical about that development," he said.

In Japan, officials say radiation levels have reached dangerous levels and have forced 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors.

Richard Ivens is the director of institutional affairs at FORATOM, the Brussels-based trade association for the nuclear energy industry in Europe.

He says the nuclear emergency in Japan should not raise fears about a similar situation in Europe.

"Normally we don't have the same sort of seismic events in Europe as have occurred in Japan, that's point number one," said Ivens. "Also the chances of having a tsunami of that sort of magnitude are much lower in Europe than they are in Japan clearly because in Japan, they are right next to a major fault line."

He says nuclear power is the way forward for clean energy in Europe.