European nuclear leaders launched a call on Thursday for measures to ensure the revival of atomic energy in the face of soaring oil prices and concerns over global warming.
At a two-day European Commission-sponsored forum in Prague, officials and government leaders said real steps had to be taken to put nuclear power back into the energy mix.
"We are more and more dependent on oil and gas imported from unstable parts of the world at high price," warned the host of the second European Nuclear Energy Forum, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.
"We have come to a time today where we must do more than talk about nuclear energy," he said, warning: "It is really five minutes to midnight."
Nuclear energy seemed assured of a strong future in the 1960s but serious accidents at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979 and then Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 sparked public unease and led to a scaling back of the industry.
Some countries, such as Germany and Italy, opted to close down their nuclear power generation but as oil has hit record breaking highs, government have revisited the issue.
Italy on Thursday announced that it planned to begin building next generation nuclear power stations within five years having closed down the industry in 1987 following a referendum.
Britain also recently announced a major new drive to increase its nuclear energy resources.
Promoting nuclear energy
One of the main demands of nuclear power's backers is that it be given recognition as "a low carbon or non-emissions sector," similar to renewable sources of power, Topolanek told AFP in the margins of the forum.
Nuclear power plants currently produce around a third of the EU's electricity and 15 percent of its total energy but that proportion is dwindling as plants built in the 1960s and 1970s are coming to the end of their lives.
"The share of nuclear power is continuing to fall as more plants are being closed down than being built," said Topolanek who is one of the main proponents of a nuclear revival in contrast with his government coalition partner, the Green Party.
"The trend is in the direction of more and not less nuclear energy; the question is to know when we will take a decision in Europe," EU Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso said.
"This forum responds to an urgent need to have an open debate, without taboos and without preconceived ideas," Barroso said.
A political deal on EU measures to reshape energy policy in order to combat climate change, the so-called energy-climate package, should be reached by the end of the year, he said.
Slovakia's leftwing premier, Robert Fico, meanwhile attacked the "absurd" commitment given by his country's previous centre-right government to shut down two nuclear reactors at Jaslovske Bohunice ahead of its entry into the EU.
"This was reckless decision which means that Slovakia will have to import 20 percent of its electricity needs," he added.
The Slovak government is now weighing up whether to construct a new nuclear plant at the Bohunice site on its own or in cooperation with foreign investors.
At the same time, the government is impatient about bureaucratic obstacles in Brussels that it claims are holding up completion of two nuclear reactors by electricity company Slovenske Elektrarne, controlled by Italian power giant Enel.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas in turn called for Brussels to reconsider its demand that its nuclear power plant close in 2009, creating a serious two-year energy shortfall before new electricity interconnection links with Poland and Sweden can be completed and a new nuclear power plant constructed in cooperation with Estonia, Latvia and Poland.
"We have a two-year gap where we face a doubling of electricity prices, doubling of carbon emissions and, according to our feasibility studies, a four percent fall in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) with the social consequences that will result," he warned.