As energy crisis bites, Europe returns to nuclear power

The conflict in Ukraine is drawing energy use and autonomy into even sharper focus

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Sun 29 May 2022, 10:36 PM

As energy prices soar in Europe, whispers are growing louder about something unthinkable to many since the ‘70s: a return to nuclear power.

Due to strenuous efforts in de-carbonisation and the fight against global warming, some leaders and even environmentalists were already quietly including nuclear power among possible solutions in the energy mix of the future.

Now the conflict in Ukraine is drawing energy use and autonomy into even sharper focus. Reliant on gas and oil from Russia, Europe is feeling the squeeze as it supports Ukraine. Not only is energy much more expensive, it has been cut off entirely to some countries.

The invasion “redefined our energy security considerations”, said Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency. “I would expect that nuclear may well make a step back in Europe and elsewhere as a result of the energy insecurity.”

Belgium’s Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten called the invasion of Ukraine “a life changer”. He now embraces further use of nuclear power.

With the support of even Belgium’s Green political party, the government reversed its policy to phase out nuclear energy by 2025, instead extending the life of two reactors for another decade.

The use of renewable energy from the wind, sun and water is growing, but those sources are not yet robust and entirely reliable enough. For nations poor in natural fuels, nuclear power can tick a lot of boxes on the list of today’s requirements. It is potent without emitting greenhouse gases.

The sudden urgency and enormous pressure to find alternatives to Russian fuel has magnified a political divide in Europe over nuclear power. A bloc of pro-nuclear countries led by France, Europe’s biggest atomic energy producer, is pushing for a build-up while Germany opposes the initiative, citing the dangers of radioactive waste.

Germany’s now-powerful Green political party can trace its roots back in part to anti-nuclear sentiment in the early 1970s when large demonstrations prevented the construction of the Whyl nuclear plant.

The strength of opposition was again demonstrated early this year when Germany opposed plans by the European Commission to label nuclear power a “green” energy, a tag that has significant investment and tax implications.

Germany’s ministries of environment, economy and climate said in a joint statement that “the government has expressed its opposition to the taxonomy rules on nuclear power – this ‘no’ is an important political signal that makes it clear: nuclear energy is not sustainable”. Other EU nations that have vowed to decommission or eschew nuclear plants include Austria, Italy and Spain.

It’s a tough spot for Germany – 34 per cent of its oil and 55 percent of its gas comes from Russia. A complete cut-off of supplies would plunge Germany and the rest of Europe into recession.

Despite opposition, several countries are ploughing ahead in full support of nuclear energy, but the industry has notoriously long lead times. France, which already generates 70 per cent of its energy through nuclear power, is determined to get its Flamanville plant online in 2024 after a cost overrun of 12 billion euros and a delivery date 10 years late.

Finland’s most modern nuclear power plant, which started operating last month, was supposed to be finished in 2009. To emphasize the UK’s renewed interest in nuclear energy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the country’s Hinkley Point nuclear plant this month, but it will be at least four years before it goes online.

Yet even before a Russian energy crunch threatened Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to double down on the country’s commitment to atomic power, calling for a “renaissance” in the nuclear industry.

In the lead-up to his campaign and re-election as president, Macron announced a vast programme to build up to 14 new reactors, saying it would help make France carbon neutral by 2050.

Promising to ensure safe operations, Macron said French nuclear regulators were “unequalled” in their professionalism. He said the decision to build new nuclear power plants was a “choice of progress, a choice of confidence in science and technology”.

Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association, agrees with the French position, contending that nuclear energy is not only carbon-free, but is also consistent and reliable, making it perfect for backing up intermittent new energies. By its very nature, power generated by the wind and sun varies a great deal.

He notes that the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have included nuclear power in their projections for a net-zero future.

“The best time to build a nuclear power station was 10 years ago,” Greatrex says. “The second-best time is now.” We will need clean energy for many centuries to come, he notes, adding that “it’s not as if de-carbonization stops in 2030.”

Ironically, possible interrupted maintenance at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine was high among the concerns over the Russian invasion.

With concerns over Chernobyl now easing, leaders and consumers are clamouring for a solution to their energy needs -- and nuclear has taken on a renewed shine.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy

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