As Japan's nuclear crisis unfolds, Europe takes a fresh look at wind

The Japan catastrophe has raised difficult questions about the future of nuclear energy.

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The mind-numbing horror of the triple catastrophe that has struck Japan - earthquake, tsunami, radiation crisis - has sharply focused minds in Europe, raising difficult questions about the future of nuclear energy.

After the decisions by Switzerland to suspend expansion of its nuclear programme and Germany to put plans for extending the life of its nuclear power stations on hold, France also faces growing public unease.

With 58 reactors at 19 power stations, the country is the largest producer of nuclear energy after the US. The output of these plants meets 75 per cent of French energy requirements.

In the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has ordered that reactors be checked "one by one" to ensure security systems are as safe as they can be.

But there is little the country can do in the near term to reduce its overwhelming reliance on nuclear power.

In the search for ways of changing how the French obtain their electricity, Mr Sarkozy has turned to a source of energy that is free and in plentiful supply: wind.

Soon after being elected president in 2007, he set himself the target of changing the balance of supply so that renewable energy would provide for 23 per cent of France's needs by 2020, with 8 per cent coming from wind turbines on land and at sea.

Turning wind into power is not free, of course, and Mr Sarkozy's government has committed itself to a €20 billion (Dh103bn) plan to build giant offshore wind farms along the French coast from the English Channel to the Mediterranean.

These will be France's first maritime wind farms, and their development reflects Mr Sarkozy's determination to catch up with the UK and Germany, where similar projects are much more advanced.

In most areas where the turbines will be constructed, local authorities will welcome the boost to their economies and employment.

But the project has also run into some stiff opposition, in particular from military veterans' groups unhappy with one of the chosen sites, just off the beaches where 2,500 allied servicemen died in the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6 1944.

Officials favour coastal waters about 11km off Courseulles-sur-Mer, location of Juno, one of the five landing beaches used during the invasion.

The plan, which would involve 80 windmills, each 160 metres high, has caused controversy on both sides of the Channel.

Admiral Christian Brac de la Perriere, the president of two French commemorative bodies, the Comite du Debarquement and Normandie Memoire, described the proposals as "inappropriate and incoherent". He also complains that the plan is incompatible with the government's own wish that the coastline from Utah Beach to Sword Beach become a Unesco world heritage site.

There is scepticism among some environmental groups about official assurances that the turbines will be barely visible from the shore. Campaigners fear they will be seen on clear days and that nightfall will bring light pollution. Even the true value of wind generators has been questioned. The UK's objectives on renewable energy are even more ambitious than Mr Sarkozy's.

"Under a target agreed with the EU, Britain is committed within 10 years - at astronomic expense - to generating nearly a third of its electricity from renewable energy, mainly through building thousands more wind turbines," the campaigning journalist Christopher Booker wrote this year in a British newspaper, the Daily Mail. "But the penny is finally dropping for almost everyone - except our politicians - that to rely on windmills to keep our lights on is a colossal and very dangerous act of self-deception."

That was written before the Japanese crisis. With Mr Sarkozy insisting that lessons will be learned from the disaster, and the French public clamouring for reassurance, the French president is unlikely to relent. And he may be pleased to hear that one D-Day veterans' group is adopting a more relaxed stance.

"The Japanese tragedy has given us all a bit of a wake-up call," says Ed Slater, 86, the chairman of Britain's Normandy Veterans Association. "I had thought of writing to Mr Sarkozy but had a change of heart because we are having to look seriously at non-nuclear ways of producing our power.

"It still seems inappropriate to place windmills at a place of such sacred memory. But I gather they will probably be too far offshore to be visible from the shoreline, except where the ground is higher, and it is not as if the French come over to the UK and tell us how to do these things."