As Japan’s nuclear crisis intensified Wednesday, governments across Europe remained at odds over whether to scale back nuclear power programs or continue plans to expand, while China announced that it was suspending new plant approvals until it could strengthen safety standards.
While the German public has been the most vocal against nuclear power — pushing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government this week to close temporarily seven of the country’s 17 plants — it is a different story in other parts of Europe.
France, the second-largest producer of nuclear power in the world behind the United States, said it would continue to rely on nuclear energy.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said Wednesday that the accident in Japan had “provoked across the world a number of questions about the safety of nuclear power stations and the energy mix.”
But he added: “France has chosen nuclear energy, which is an essential element of its energy independence and the struggle against greenhouse gases. I remain convinced of the relevance today of those choices.”
Nonetheless, critics voiced their opposition to the government’s stance. François Mativet, a spokesman for Sortir du Nucléaire, a network of 875 antinuclear groups, described Mr. Sarkozy’s comments as “scandalous” and called for the immediate closing of 16 reactors in France that have been in service for more than 30 years, as well as a longer-term plan to abandon nuclear power.
Elsewhere on the Continent, Russia and several Eastern European countries were playing down the risk of nuclear power.
So confident was Russia that it signed an agreement with Belarus this week to finance and build Belarus’s first nuclear power plant, a 4.3 billion euro, or $6 billion, project near the Lithuanian border.
As if to make a point that Russia had no intention of backing away from its own ambitious nuclear energy policy, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin flew to Minsk for the signing ceremony on Tuesday.
“We now have a whole arsenal of progressive technological means to ensure the stable accident-free work of nuclear power stations,” Mr. Putin said.
The Belarusian plant will have two reactors. They are expected to begin operating by 2016 and 2018, Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich of Belarus said at the ceremony.
Belarus’s neighbors in the European Union — Lithuania, Latvia and Poland — expressed concern about the accord, not only because it would increase Belarus’s dependence on Russia for its energy but also because of safety concerns.
The 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, contaminated parts of these countries, as well as Belarus.
Despite such fears, Lithuania and Poland seem determined to go ahead with their own nuclear programs, if they can afford it.
The Lithuanian government has said it wants to replace the Ignalina nuclear power plant, which was partly closed in 2004 for safety reasons at the insistence of the European Union, which required it as a condition for joining.
Still, Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s president, said this week that the government might have to rethink its nuclear energy plans, not because of Japan’s disasters but because of costs.
“Lithuania should have no illusions that it may be able to build something in the near future; we have no investor,” Mrs. Grybauskaite told The Associated Press.
“We have no technologies. It would be very naïve nurturing expectations, especially given the current situation and the economic crisis, which isn’t over yet.”
In Poland, which is considering building its own nuclear power plants, Prime Minister Donald Tusk also played down the crisis in Japan. “Plants will be built to provide maximum security,” he told reporters last weekend.
A similar attitude can be seen in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania, where public opinion, with few exceptions, has not questioned such a strategy.
All those countries intend to build more nuclear plants, despite the costs — and despite the increased dependence on Russia for the construction of these plants or for uranium.
In China, the government announced stepped-up inspections at its existing plants in addition to the suspension of new approvals.
China, the world’s leader in construction of nuclear plants, plans to add more than 25 reactors, but most are already under construction, and it was unclear how many would be affected by the new order.
The announcement came after Premier Wen Jiabao discussed Japan’s nuclear crisis with the State Council, a body roughly equivalent to the White House cabinet.
“We must fully grasp the importance and urgency of nuclear safety, and development of nuclear power must make safety the top priority,” the government said on its Web site.
“Any hazards must be thoroughly dealt with, and those that do not conform to safety standards must immediately cease construction.”
Although the statement said "all new power plants" should be suspended until safety standards are revised, an industry expert said Thursday morning that the government intends to continue work on those plants already under construction and halt construction only if it identifies safety problems.
In that case, China’s expansion of nuclear power might not slow significantly, he said.
Officials have portrayed nuclear energy as a way for China to reduce its reliance on coal and cut its carbon dioxide emissions while at the same time meeting surging demand for electricity.
The country has never had a serious nuclear accident, though the speed of its construction program has raised safety concerns.
Some specialists also worried that China was building plants too close to urban areas or earthquake fault lines.
In late February, just a few weeks before the crisis at Japan’s Daiichi nuclear complex began to unfold, China’s ministry of environmental protection announced regulations prohibiting nuclear construction near earthquake zones or major cities.
As recently as Saturday, before the gravity of the nuclear disaster in Japan was clear, a top Chinese official restated China’s commitment to nuclear power.
“Some lessons we learn from Japan will be considered in the making of China’s nuclear power plans,” Zhang Lijun, vice minister for environmental protection, said then. “But China will not change its determination and plan for developing nuclear power.”
He also said that China used a more modern design than those of Japan’s stricken reactors.
Matthew Saltmarsh contributed reporting.