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ENERGY

Energy crisis pushes nuclear comeback in Europe

As the costs of importing energy soars in Europe and beyond and climate crises wreak havoc, interest in nuclear power is on the rise with nations scrambling to find alternative sources.

technicians stand outside the building housing the switched off Unit 1 reactor at the nuclear power plant of Civaux, central France.
In this file photo from 2016, technicians stand outside the building housing the switched off Unit 1 reactor at the nuclear power plant of Civaux, central France. France is one of the countries planning to relaunch nuclear construction amid the energy crisis. Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

Investment in nuclear power declined after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, as fears over its safety increased and governments ran scared.

But following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the subsequent squeeze on energy supplies and Europe’s push to wean itself off of Russian oil and gas, the tide is now turning back in favour of nuclear.

Governments face difficult 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 world’s energy mix.

This has led some countries that were looking to move away from nuclear to discard those plans — at least in the short term.

Less than a month after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Belgium delayed by a decade its plan to scrap nuclear energy in 2025.

And even in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, sticking with nuclear is no longer a taboo subject as the energy crisis rekindles debate on shutting down the country’s last three nuclear power plants by the end of 2022.

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

Another of the countries reconsidering nuclear energy is Japan, where the 2011 accident led to the suspension of many nuclear reactors over safety fears.

And in Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week called for a push to revive the country’s nuclear power industry, and build new atomic plants.

While nuclear power, currently used in 32 countries, supplies 10 percent of the world’s electricity production, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised its projections in September for the first time since the 2011 disaster.

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

Climate reasoning

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

He said nuclear energy would have “limited” efficacy in replacing Russian gas since it is mainly “used for heating” in Germany not for electricity production.

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

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

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

The pro-nuclear lobby says it is one of the world’s best options to avoid climate change since it does not directly emit carbon dioxide.

In fact, nuclear energy accounts for a bigger share of the world power mix in most of the scenarios put forward by the IPCC, the UN’s climate experts, to alleviate the global climate crisis.

Divided opinions

As the need for electricity booms, several countries have expressed a desire to develop nuclear infrastructure including China — which already has the largest number of reactors — as well as the Czech Republic, India and
Poland since nuclear offers an alternative to coal.

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

The IPCC experts recognise that the deployment of nuclear energy “can be constrained by societal preferences” since the subject still divides opinion because of the risk of catastrophic accidents and the still unresolved issue
of how to dispose of radioactive waste safely.

Some countries, like New Zealand, oppose nuclear, and the issue has also been hotly debated in the European Union over whether it should be listed as a “green” energy.

READ ALSO: EU moves to label nuclear and gas energy as ‘green’

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

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

Berghmans pointed to “long construction delays”.

“We’re talking about medium-term solutions, which won’t resolve tensions in the market”, as they will arrive too late to address climate crises, he said, but suggested focusing on the “dynamic” renewable energies sector that can be immediately helpful.

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ENERGY

Norway and Germany seek Nato-led cooperation for key undersea structures

Germany and Norway want to start a NATO-led alliance to protect critical underwater infrastructure, their leaders said on Wednesday, weeks after explosions hit two key gas pipelines in the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

Norway and Germany seek Nato-led cooperation for key undersea structures

 “We are in the process of asking the NATO Secretary General to set up a coordination office for the protection of underwater infrastructure,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told a press conference in Berlin.

“We take the protection of our critical infrastructure very seriously and nobody should believe that attacks will remain without consequences,” he said.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said the alliance would be “an informal initiative to exchange between civilian and also military actors” with NATO providing “a centre, a coordination point”.

Underwater cables and pipelines were “arteries of the modern economy” and it was necessary to create “a coordinated joint effort to ensure security for this infrastructure”, he said.

Scholz said he and Store would propose the plan to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who is due in Berlin for a security conference. The Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines off the Danish island of Bornholm were targeted by two huge explosions at the end of September.

The pipelines, which connect Russia to Germany, had been at the centre of geopolitical tensions as Moscow cut gas supplies to Europe in suspected
retaliation to Western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.

Although they were not in operation when the leaks occurred, they both still contained gas which spewed up through the water and into the atmosphere.

Russia and Western countries, particularly the United States, have traded bitter barbs over who is responsible for the blasts.

Several European countries have since taken steps to increase security around critical infrastructure. 

The G7 interior ministers warned earlier this month at a meeting in Germany that the Nord Stream explosions had highlighted “the need to better protect our critical infrastructure”.

Norway has become Europe’s main gas supplier in the wake of the war in Ukraine, taking the place of Russia.

The Scandinavian country has a vast network of pipelines, stretching for almost 9,000 kilometres, linking it to the continent, which experts have said are at risk of sabotage.

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