Seventeen years after the Chernobyl catastrophe and amid a drive to conform to EU nuclear-safety standards, several Central and East European countries appear to be hatching plans to construct new nuclear reactors or complete projects already underway.
Announcements have been made everywhere from Lithuania and Bulgaria to Ukraine and Romania. Even eco-friendly Finland last year approved a plan to build a fifth nuclear plant - the first such decision by a West European country in more than a decade.
But analysts say they are skeptical about these new nuclear ambitions. At the very least, many say the cost of building a single nuclear reactor is enough to break the bank - about 1 billion euros.
Herve Kempf, a journalist who reports on international environmental issues for Le Monde, said, "A nuclear plant is extremely expensive. So it's hard to imagine what financing [these countries] could get. The Russians could not provide the required financing even if they wanted to, and very few Western private and public investors are interested in investing in the nuclear industry because it represents a very significant investment with very questionable profitability."
The issue is not only economic but political. Countries like Lithuania, which will enter the EU in 2004, and Bulgaria, which hopes to join by 2007, are complying with EU requests to shut down existing nuclear plants even as they set their sights on new reactors.
Some analysts say this is a move by politicians in both countries to calm jittery workers who fear job losses if and when nuclear facilities are closed.
Kempf said it might also be a tactic to win higher compensation packages from the EU.
"We often have the feeling that these governments are kind of blackmailing [the EU]. There is a sort of arm-wrestling match consisting of them saying to the European Union, 'If you don't give me more compensation for the closure of my plant, I'm going to build a new one because I don't have any alternative,'" wrote Kempf.
Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear power plant produces about 70 percent of the country's electricity, in addition to exporting power to neighboring countries. But the plant, which fails to meet EU nuclear safety standards, is in the process of being shut down. It is due to be fully decommissioned by 2009.
In a recent interview, President Rolandas Paksas said he hoped to build a replacement. He said the decision should be made by 2005 - the same year Ignalina's first reactor is to be switched off.
Bulgaria is likewise in the process of shutting down its Kozloduy plant in compliance with EU regulations. Two of its reactors have already been switched off, and two more are due to be decommissioned in 2006. The shutdown may have a damaging impact on Bulgaria's status as the Balkan Peninsula's regional power hub.
With this in mind, the government announced in December it will resume work on a second plant in the village of Belene.
In some instances, the building plans have met with results. The EU last year pledged to pay 210 million euros in compensation to Lithuania and 60 million euros to Slovakia, another 2004 entrant, which has pledged to decommission two reactors at its Bohunice plant.
The question of compensation for Bulgaria remains unsettled as entry negotiations are still underway.
Governments now hope that the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) will contribute financial support to their nuclear projects. Euratom has already agreed to a 212 million euro loan to help Bulgaria modernize its two remaining Kozloduy reactors. Ukraine is also receiving a 585-million-euro Euratom loan to complete work on its Khmelnitsky-2 and Rivne-4 reactors.
But Gilles Gantelet, a spokesman for the EU's energy and transport commissioner, said it was not likely the EU would approve significant amounts of aid for the construction of new nuclear reactors.
"There are possibilities for loans. But frankly, Euratom's loans are not foreseen to be devoted today to the construction of new [reactors]. To the contrary, Euratom loans are generally used for decommissioning or ensuring the safety [of reactors]. This is the general rule, but it depends on the case," Gantelet said.
Observers also say Central and Eastern Europe must curb its high energy consumption before it can consider building new plants. They say more effort should be made to improve the region's existing energy systems and promote the efficient use of electricity.
Olexi Pasyuk of CEE Bankwatch Network, a non-governmental organization that monitors the activities of international financial institutions in Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS, said there were numerous ways to improve the region's energy efficiency.
One of them, he said, is to convert existing nonnuclear facilities into "co-generators" - plants that process fuel into both thermal and electrical energy.
"We have plenty of fossil-fuel power plants that were closed because there wasn't enough consumption. Rehabilitation of these existing plants would easily bring the same amount of energy [as new nuclear plants]. Not to mention the fact that on many occasions you have thermal power plants which produce local heating and district heating, but which produce only heat - not electricity. And basically turning that into cogeneration would produce a huge amount of extra electricity with quite low investment," Pasyuk said.
There are other possible steps as well. Le Monde's Kempf said a country like Bulgaria could cut down on its energy waste by gradually converting from electrical heat to an oil or gas heating system.
But, he said, if the bulk of the region's EU funds continue to go toward decommissioning nuclear plants, little may be left over for such efficiency-building measures.