European leaders have stepped up their campaign to prepare the way for a new take up of the nuclear option. In Brussels the vice president of the European Commission and the commissioner for transport and energy, Loyola de Palacio, has again said that Europe needs to keep the nuclear energy option open.

In practice, she said, the EU has very limited options available to it. External energy dependency could reach 70% by 2020, with oil dependency reaching 90%, and gas reaching 60%.

She said: “In order to increase the diversity in our fuel mix, difficult decisions must be made now: to invest in new technologies – carbon sequestration, innovative nuclear fission and fusion reactor concepts, and renewable technologies; to develop the fuels of tomorrow; and to equip consumers with the information they require to make prudent energy decisions.

“The nuclear option must remain open for the security of energy supply and for meeting our climate change objectives. A durable and sustainable energy mix includes, in my view, safe and clean nuclear power. Repeated surveys have shown that the public would be more responsive to nuclear power if they were convinced that a high level of nuclear safety was assured and that a permanent solution to the problem of management of radioactive waste could be found.”

The European Council of Ministers is still discussing ways and means of achieving greater co-ordination and harmonisation in nuclear safety and safe management, and disposal of radioactive waste. Legislation on these issues would ensure that an equivalent level of nuclear safety is maintained within the enlarged EU.

In the UK, prime minister Tony Blair indicated to a committee of senior MPs that Britain might have to build a new generation of nuclear power plants if it is to meet its commitments on climate change. According to a report in the Guardian, Blair said that he had personally insisted on keeping the nuclear option open in the Energy White Paper produced in 2003, and that evidence was “now overwhelming that climate change was the single biggest long-term problem facing the country”. Nor was the world any nearer finding a mechanism to cut carbon dioxide emissions by the government’s target of 60% by 2050.

Blair said that a decision on nuclear power would not need to be taken “today, but will arise in the next few years”. He also revealed that he was being lobbied by the USA to look at nuclear power as the best way of cutting carbon emissions. But he repeatedly said that no decision had yet been taken, and that the nuclear industry had to do more to meet concerns about safety and costs.

A European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) is under construction by the Finnish utility TVO at Olkiluoto 3. Construction of another EPR is planned in France.

According to Framatome ANP, the EPR design shows improved performance levels and increased competitiveness, and boasts improved safety levels and simplified O & M compared with previous technologies.