Will Europe Go for the Nuclear Option?

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Coming on the heels of an all-too-hot conflict in Georgia this past August, count it a blessing that Russia's New-Year "cold war" with Ukraine features thermostats rather than tanks.

That, however, may be the only bright spot in a commercial conflict with increasing geo-political ramifications. Beneath the surface arguments about price per thousand cubic meters lie Russian efforts to destabilize the pro-Western government of Ukraine, just last spring – along with Georgia – harboring hopes of NATO membership.

The current stand off didn't come without warning. Moscow and Kiev spent the waning days of 2008 sparring over what it would take to keep gas flows to Ukraine intact – and beyond Ukraine, the trans-shipment of 80 percent of Europe's Russian-sourced natural gas. In spite of the fact that their Russian gas comes via Ukrainian pipelines, much of Europe entered 2009 determined to see the standoff as a commercial spat for Russia and Ukraine to hash out. A spokesman for the Czech Government – newly-installed January 1 in the rotating presidency of the European Union – asserted that "there is no reason for concern," after a meeting with Gazprom officials. But that was more than two days and 20 degrees ago, as European temperatures plunged even as Russia dialed down gas deliveries to near-zero.

At this writing, a dozen nations in Central and Eastern Europe have seen the daily flow of Russian natural gas fall by 90 to 100 percent. With Ukraine's fractured government standing together in the face of Russian demands, Moscow upped the ante, figuring that turning off Europe's gas will turn up the heat on Ukraine to fold.

Even as the crisis continues, a second debate has opened concerning how Europe can avoid another such gas-fired cold war in the future. Some Russian analysts suggest the Ukraine standoff argues that alternative pipelines – Nord Stream, South Stream and Blue Stream – must move from the drawing board into construction. For some over-coat-clad observers in Eastern Europe, this proposed remedy simply increases the number of levers Russia would hold, the better to manipulate Europe's gas supply in the next crisis. Others cite the Nabucco project, much-discussed and much-delayed, as a means of decreasing dependence on Russian gas.

Increasingly, however, discussions raise a third alternative: the nuclear option. Long out of favor on the American side of the Atlantic, nuclear power has been a stronger element in Europe's energy mix. At the edges of the global warming debate, a few voices have braved Green scorn to make a clean-energy case for nuclear power over sources that carry a heavy carbon footprint. For others, nuclear energy has always been a means towards energy independence.

France, for instance, receives a whopping 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power – the largest percentage of any of the world's industrialized nations. By contrast, continental Europe's other geo-political pillar, Germany, has set itself firmly on the de-nuclear path: While it currently generates 30% of its power via nuclear energy, Germany has committed to close all nuclear plants by the early 2020s. Whether that policy will get a second look -- now as the forecast in Berlin calls for a high of 26 degrees F and a low of 20 percent of its daily ration of Russian gas -- remains to be seen.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, the impulse to go nuclear is evident. On Wednesday, Bulgaria (percentage of natural gas demand supplied by Russia: 99 percent; percentage of daily gas supply delivered by Russia as of yesterday: zero) announced it would press the EU for permission to restart its Kozludui nuclear power facility, mothballed in the run-up to that country's EU accession in 2007. Bulgaria also has two new nuclear plants under construction, while neighboring Romania (percentage of natural gas demand supplied by Russia: 25 percent; percentage of daily gas supply delivered by Russia as of yesterday: zero) plans two new units at its sole nuclear power plant at Cernovoda.

This of course is capacity that will take months to restart and years to build. But crises concentrate the mind, and the current one may spark an interest in newer nuclear technologies. Already, a U.S.-Eastern European joint venture has announced its intention to field mass-produced, nuclear mini-reactors in the Czech Republic and Romania. Whether such efforts will win favor in national capitals and Brussels remains to be seen, but the concept gets an unexpected boost from the current "cold war" between Ukraine and Russia.

No one knows precisely what led the powers behind Gazprom to pull the lever on Europe, and what will lead them to open the spigot again. For those seeking to prevent a repeat performance in the Januaries of 2010 and beyond, some in Europe are ready to consider a nuclear option – one that might lessen the region's carbon footprint and Russia's boot-print at one and the same time.

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