River levels may cause nuclear reactors to go offline, while dry weather in northern and eastern Europe will raise food prices.

One of the driest springs ever recorded in northern Europe could lead to power blackouts this summer, with nuclear reactors going offline because of low river levels. The exceptionally dry weather will also raise food prices and has already forced water restrictions on millions of people, say governments, farm groups and meteorological organisations across the continent.

Large parts of southern Britain, northern France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other northern and eastern European countries have had their driest three-month spells in more than 50 years, receiving just 25-60 per cent of their long-term average rainfall since February. This has led to parched soils and difficult growing conditions for farmers, as well as to river levels that are dangerously low for wildlife.

Patchy rain has moistened soils in parts of northern Britain, France and Germany over the past few weeks, but with summer approaching and temperatures soaring to over 30°C in France, it is not expected that any rains will compensate for months of exceptionally dry weather.

Last week the European Union warned that soils were now “critically dry” in six countries. The French wheat harvest is now expected to be 11.5 per cent-13 per cent down on average despite an increase in the area planted this year and German output is expected to fall seven-nine per cent. In south-east England, many farmers expect crops to fail dramatically unless steady rains come soon.

Dry weather may cut grain and oilseed yields by as much as 20 per cent, said Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture for HSBC Bank. Last week wheat prices rose in Chicago for two days running on the expectation that dry weather has hurt crops in France, Germany and the U.K., and the UN warned that rising food prices risked riots in developing countries. On Monday, Oxfam said the average price of staple foods would more than double in the next 20 years.

River levels, n-reactors

The drought has led to some of Europe's lowest river levels recorded in more than 100 years. According to the German Federal Hydrological Agency, ships on Europe's two biggest rivers, the Rhine and Danube, are being forced to sail 50-80 per cent empty because they are having problems navigating in such low water. The Danube fell to a 100-year low for May in Austria.

Concern is now mounting that some of Europe's nuclear reactors may be forced to temporarily close within months if there is not substantially increased rainfall. Most of France's nuclear stations rely on river water to cool them and falling rivers could force closure.

So far the dry conditions have not caused blackouts, but EDF has said it lost 2.1 terawat (trillion)-hours of hydro electric power in the past three months because of low water levels. Water reservoirs for electricity production are now 54 per cent full, 10 percentage points below the same week last year and nine points lower than in 2009. France gets about 20 per cent of its power capacity from running water through turbines.

Observers said a trend towards drier springs appeared to be gaining momentum. This year's drought in April follows exceptionally dry years in 2007, 2009 and 2010. “2011 was up to now one of the driest 10 years in nearly whole Switzerland since 1864. April 2011 was one of the 10 driest April months in Germany since 1881, in continuation of similarly dry April months in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Last winter was very dry in western Europe”, said a spokesman for the World Meteorological Organisation. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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