The energy crisis pushes the return of nuclear power in Europe

Investment in nuclear power declined after Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, as fears about its safety grew and governments spooked.

But following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the subsequent squeezing of energy supplies and pressure from Europe to wean itself off Russian oil and gas, the tide is now turning in favor of nuclear.

Governments face tough decisions with rising gas and electricity bills and scarce resources threatening to cause widespread suffering this winter.

Some experts argue that nuclear power should not be considered an option, but others argue that, in the face of so many crises, it must remain part of the global energy mix.

This has led some countries that were looking to move away from nuclear power to abandon such plans, at least in the short term.

Less than a month after the Russian attack on Ukraine, Belgium has delayed its plan to abandon nuclear energy by 2025 for ten years.

And even in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, going nuclear is no longer a taboo subject as the energy crisis reignites debate over whether to shut down the country’s last three nuclear power plants by now. the end of 2022.

Berlin said last month it would await the outcome of a “stress test” of the national power grid before deciding whether to stick with phasing out.

Another country reconsidering nuclear power is Japan, where the 2011 accident caused many nuclear reactors to be suspended over safety concerns.

And in Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week called for reviving the country’s nuclear industry and building new atomic power plants.

While nuclear energy, currently used in 32 countries, provides 10% of global electricity production, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised its projections in September for the first time since the disaster of 2011.

The IAEA now expects installed capacity to double by 2050 under the most favorable scenario.

Climate reasoning

But Greenpeace Germany climate and energy expert Gerald Neubauer said going nuclear was “not a solution to the energy crisis”.

He said nuclear energy would have “limited” effectiveness in replacing Russian gas because it is mainly “used for heating” in Germany and not for electricity generation.

“The reactors would only save the gas used for electricity, it would save less than one percent of gas consumption,” he added.

But according to Nicolas Berghmans, energy and climate expert at the IDDRI think tank, extending the use of nuclear power “can help”.

“Europe is in a very different energy situation, with several overlapping crises: the Russian gas supply problem, the drought which has reduced the capacity of the dams, the low yield of French nuclear power plants… so all the levers
matter,” he said.

The pro-nuclear lobby says it’s one of the world’s best options for avoiding climate change because it doesn’t directly emit carbon dioxide.

In fact, nuclear energy represents a larger share of the global energy mix in most scenarios proposed by the IPCC, the UN climate experts, to alleviate the global climate crisis.

Opinions divided

While electricity needs are exploding, several countries have expressed the wish to develop nuclear infrastructures, including China — which already has the largest number of reactors — as well as the Czech Republic, India and
Poland since nuclear power offers an alternative to coal.

Similarly, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands have similar ambitions, and even the United States where President Joe Biden’s investment plan encourages the development of the sector.

IPCC experts acknowledge that the deployment of nuclear energy “may be constrained by societal preferences” because the subject still divides opinion due to the risk of catastrophic accidents and the still unresolved question
how to dispose of radioactive waste safely.

Some countries, such as New Zealand, oppose nuclear power, and the issue has also been hotly debated within the European Union over whether it should be listed as ‘green’ energy.

READ ALSO: EU set to label nuclear power and gas as ‘green’

Last month, the European Parliament approved a controversial proposal giving a sustainable finance label to investments in gas and nuclear energy.

Other issues remain with nuclear infrastructure, including the ability to build new reactors with tightly controlled costs and timelines.

Berghmans pointed to “long construction delays”.

“We are talking about medium-term solutions, which will not resolve market tensions” because they will come too late to deal with climate crises, he said, but suggested focusing on the “dynamic” sector. “renewable energies that can be immediately useful.

Mary I. Bruner