Nuclear power, and the heavy safety baggage it carries, has long divided European opinion, with individual countries charting vastly divergent paths on the industry’s role in future energy sustainability and security plans.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has again brought the atomic question to the fore, as nations scrambled for short-term solutions before winter sets in, as well as longer-term safeguards, to avoid similar energy upheavals in the years ahead.
But after eight months of fighting in Ukraine, and an energy crisis compounded most recently by the alleged sabotage of the arterial Nord Stream 1 and 2 Russia-to-Europe pipelines in the Baltic Sea, European governments long opposed to nuclear power have shown only incremental shifts in their attitudes, which have been informed by years of concerns about nuclear waste and safety.
A wider pivot has remained absent.
“We’re not talking about a nuclear renaissance, as such,” Nicolas Berghmans, an energy and climate expert at the France-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), told Al Jazeera, “but maybe more of a change of tide.”
“A real nuclear renaissance would be if Europe decides to invest in more nuclear power plants.”
Said Mark Hibbs, a Germany-based non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “I don’t see a major [nuclear power] watershed from what’s happening in Ukraine.”
Instead, the situation has reinforced some trends among countries already bought into nuclear energy, he said, while slowing some opponents’ phase-outs of the technology.
Europe’s nuclear hesitancy
Opposition to nuclear power, coupled with other factors, has created a 25 percent overall decline in electricity produced by splitting atoms in the 27-country European Union from 2006 to 2020, according to the bloc’s executive wing, the European Commission.
By 2020, the EU produced 24 percent of the bloc’s overall electricity from nuclear plants, with 13 countries operating nuclear reactors: France, Belgium, Germany, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.
Countries that already have nuclear power capacity, according to Hibbs, are likely to face the greatest demands in light of the conflict in Ukraine, particularly as typically 30- to 40-year power plant licences begin to expire.
“There will be pressure on European governments and industry to continue operating their nuclear power plants,” he said, adding that pressure will grow as the conflict stretches on.
Beyond the EU, in the first half of 2022, nuclear power accounted for about 40 percent of electricity production in Switzerland, 15 percent of the United Kingdom’s output, about 50 percent of electricity in war-torn Ukraine, about 20 percent in Russia and a small percentage in Belarus.
Most notably, Germany has shown a slight shift in its nuclear energy policy since the Russian invasion, with economic minister Robert Habeck confirming at the end of September plans to delay the country’s complete nuclear phase-out, initially set for the end of 2022, noting gaps in electricity supplies as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine were being “observed with concern”.
Germany would extend the life of two of three remaining nuclear reactors to the first half of 2023 to offer an “emergency reserve”, the government said.
Belgium has also moved to extend the life of two nuclear reactors by 10 years, stretching beyond the government’s 2025 deadline to phase out all nuclear power. The government, however, proceeded in late September to close one of its four remaining plants, despite protests against rising energy prices.
“There is a policy shift in Germany, but not a major reversal or anything to that extent,” said Jonathan Cobb, communications director at the World Nuclear Association, an international organisation that supports nuclear power.
Meanwhile, “Belgium [extending the life of two nuclear plants] could be a first step in a change in policy, a change in the momentum of policy on nuclear, that in the future could lead to proposals for new builds … But that is a long way out, I think, at the moment.”
Belgium and Germany, along with Switzerland and Spain, were among the countries that moved to phase out their industries in the wake of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, in which an earthquake and tsunami caused three nuclear meltdowns and a series of hydrogen explosions that released radiation into the atmosphere and contaminated water in the Pacific Ocean.
The disaster, which forced the evacuation of about 154,000 people and is expected to take decades to clean, has had a profound effect on the current landscape of nuclear power in Europe, adding to concerns about nuclear safety piqued by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which preceded Italy and Austria’s ban on producing nuclear power.
More recently, Greenpeace, an organisation that has long opposed nuclear power, has pointed to fighting around the Russian-seized Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine as an example of the ever-present danger of relying on nuclear as an energy source.
Denmark, Ireland and Serbia, countries that do not have nuclear power industries, have longstanding bans on developing the technology. Others, such as Greece, have avoided the technology for fear of natural disasters.
Meanwhile, several European countries have, for decades, viewed nuclear power as fundamental to their energy future, particularly amid regional and global efforts to curtail climate change. Others have, in more recent years, announced plans to develop nuclear energy.
Both the European Commission and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have emphasised nuclear power in their pathways to meet climate commitments in the EU’s Green Deal, which seeks to cut net greenhouse emissions in Europe by 55 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, and the Paris Climate Accord, which seeks to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) pre-industrial levels.
Environmental groups have long rejected the notion that nuclear is a sustainable resource, pointing to the long-term challenges of storing nuclear waste.
Still, analysts have said new European development could be bolstered by a European Commission move to include nuclear power and natural gas in its so-called green investment “taxonomy”, which sets the standard for what investments can be marketed as sustainable. The proposal for the classification was vehemently opposed by Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg.
The fallout of climate change and the urgency of the war in Ukraine have dovetailed, according to Carnegie’s Hibbs, and “underscore underlying policy rationales that have led a number of countries in Europe over the last several decades to deploy nuclear power plants”.
Recent commitments to nuclear power have been announced by several countries in the wake of the United Nations climate summit in November 2021, COP26.
In France, which has long been a hub of European nuclear power development and technology, accounting for 56 of the EU’s slightly more than 100 operable reactors, President Emmanuel Macron appeared to pivot from previous plans that sought to cut the country’s reliance on nuclear energy from about 70 percent of its electricity production to 50 percent by 2035.
In February, just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Macron announced a $57bn plan to build six next-generation nuclear reactors in the country, starting by 2028, with an option to construct eight more by 2050.
The Netherlands coalition government also proposed, in December 2021, constructing two new nuclear power plants, reviving what was long considered a stalled industry to make the country “less dependent on gas imports”. A growing number of legislators have reportedly pushed the country to lean further into nuclear energy amid the Ukraine war.
In the UK, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in April plans to build eight new nuclear plants as part of a plan to protect the country from the “vagaries of the global oil and gas prices” and “blackmail” from Russia. Critics largely dismissed the proposal as laggardly and too costly.
Poland, meanwhile, has long eyed nuclear as it sought to ween itself off of carbon-dense coal, upon which it relied for 70 percent of its electricity in 2021.
The government approved legislation in August aimed at speeding up nuclear preparations and implementation. That followed Warsaw, in September 2021, announcing plans to construct six nuclear reactors in the country, with the first to be completed by 2033 – a timeline dismissed as unrealistic by critics.
No short-term solutions
Still, a more immediate pivot has been widely constrained by the reality that nuclear power’s ability to address Europe’s short-term energy challenges is “fairly limited”, according to Cobb.
“And the reason for that is, in most countries, nuclear operates in a baseload mode. So, it is already the case that nuclear plants tend to operate full-time,” he said. “They’re not like gas plants that operate at a peaking load, producing electricity, when demand is at the highest. They’re always operating”.
Meanwhile, developing new nuclear facilities remains a daunting, costly and years-long ambition, with a high barrier of entry, IDDRI’s Berghmans said.
“It’s a complex industry,” he said. “You need big infrastructure. You need to plan where you can put these facilities. You need nuclear know-how, which is not as widespread as it used to be in Europe.”
Proponents of new generation small modular reactors (SMRs), which can be built off-site and transported, have said the new technology could offer more efficient and cheaper development, although the plants are still years away from operating and have raised their own unique safety concerns.
And while nuclear power analysts have said the nuclear supply chain is generally more stable and easier to reroute than that of many fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, it does not come without its own Russia problems.
In 2020, EU utilities imported about 20 percent of their natural uranium, the fundamental resource needed to produce nuclear energy, from Russia. The bloc also received 26 percent of its enrichment services, the required process of altering uranium’s makeup before it can be used to create energy, from Russia, according to the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).
Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine also currently operate Russian-made nuclear reactors, raising questions about their long-term needs for specific Russian-made parts and services, according to an analysis by Matt Bowen and Paul Dabbar of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.
To date, Russia’s nuclear industry has broadly escaped Western sanctions.
Recent outages at French power plants, because of maintenance, corrosion problems and heat stresses, have also reinforced longstanding hesitancy towards nuclear power, according to Carole Nakhle, the founder of the Crystol Energy consulting organisation.
“Mind you, one of the problems that the EU faced that made the current crisis even worse were the nuclear outages in France,” she told Al Jazeera. “France, which usually exports electricity, had to import this year because its power plants couldn’t keep up.”
Given the myriad challenges that continue to surround nuclear, governments are more likely to see renewable energies, such as wind and photovoltaic energy, as “more economical” alternatives to energy security and sustainability, according to Berghmans.
“Most efforts right now are based on developing renewables, that’s what you can see in the European strategy in response to the Russian crisis,” he said. “Nuclear is still not a shared solution in Europe.”