Here is a cold reality to face: The widely-acclaimed energy transition of Europe is in shambles. Besides experiencing severe energy shortages which have necessitated burning coal again, it remains stubbornly in denial of the fact that without nuclear power, the energy transition will lag behind years if not decades. However grim this reality may be, it does not compare to the shivering temperatures some European households are facing currently. Particularly, the disadvantaged are increasingly struggling with being able to afford their heating bills which have surged against the backdrop of Russia cutting off gas supplies to Europe for political reasons. Protests are starting to brew such as in Prague when 70 000 people went to the streets on September the 3rd. With angry protesters at their doorstep, politicians are now faced with the decision between either sticking to their established “idealized” energy transition approach or reconsidering alternatives. One such alternative is the “nuclear option”, which this time does not mean throwing atom bombs on the cities of opponents but instead it means supplying electricity and sustaining the livelihoods of the most vulnerable in European society.
Europe’s grand plan so far
Firstly, let us look back at the development of Europe’s move to a greener future.
It all started on the 26th of April 2016, when a consortium of EU technocrats congregated at the Paris Accord opening ceremony in New York. There, they signed the Paris Agreement together with countries across the globe to formally commit to cut their CO2-emissions to net-zero by 2050. It was a widely celebrated sign of global unity that countries were willing to look past their cultural, economic and geopolitical differences and tackle the pressing challenge of climate change together. Regardless, there remained some skeptics that pointed out that the agreement was not much more than a formality, merely an act of virtue signaling on a global scale. Frankly, there seems to have been some truth to that. Because of the non-binding nature of the agreement some countries such as China have delayed their timelines by decades until reaching net-zero emissions. Europe hereby still holds on to its 2050 target but the forecasts are looking strikingly bleak. To understand this, Europe’s approach needs to be reviewed.
So far, in terms of their energy transition, which presents the most crucial part of decarbonising economies, they have heavily supported the renewable sector through subsidies, made long-term plans to install better heat insulation in their homes and made cities more bike-friendly to reduce combustion engine emissions. Besides these popular and uncontroversial measures, they have however also made a decision which has come back to haunt them. Throughout the 2010s Europe has made themselves more dependent on Russian natural gas. Reasons for this were twofold: On the one hand, Russia had been a reasonably reliable energy partner and existing infrastructure could be relied upon such as the major pipeline Nord Stream 1 running through Ukraine. On the other hand, Europe needed a way of covering the energy shortfall that would occur due to coal power plants shutting down. As opposed to the currently unreliable and small-scale renewable energy capacity, natural gas seemed to be a favorable alternative given that it only emits around only half the CO2 emissions coal does.
The commitment to build a second natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, in 2011 was a clear marker of this move towards stronger reliance on Russian gas. Even back then, some critics realised how risky it was to blindly trust Russia from an European standpoint. Firstly, Russia’s political landscape was still characterised by authoritarian tendencies, primarily remnants from the Soviet Union. Besides the concerns of illegitimate elections, it was clear to see that Vladimir Putin, the president up until 2008, had simply instated Dmitry Medvedev, the current president, as his puppet and was forecast to reclaim power in 2012.
And secondly, besides the prospect of relying largely on a semi-authoritarian leader for energy, there were clear signs that Russia had ambitions to invade Ukraine, thereby destabilising the whole of Europe. On the one hand, Kremlin-friendly politicians kept running for presidency in Ukraine and it had been fairly evident that Russia was supporting these behind the scenes. Additionally, plans to build Nord Stream 2 through the Baltic Sea also raised some eyebrows given that it clearly displayed Russia’s efforts to circumvent Ukrainian influence, thereby opening up the possibility for military escalation.
From today’s vantage point, it is clear that both these concerns have materialised further than even the critics had feared. In the past decade Russia had escalated their relations with Ukraine progressively, first by annexing Crimea in 2014, and then in February 2022 attempting a full-blown invasion of Ukraine. With Russia’s president exerting his energy leverage on Europe at will, Europe is now forced to reevaluate its energy options.
Nuclear energy as the missing link
In this context, one of the most attractive options for substituting Europe’s reliance on natural gas is nuclear power. As a by-product of the atom bomb developed through the Manhattan project in 1946, nuclear power has been marred with controversy from its inception. In its early days this was in fact perfectly accurate because nuclear power plants were initially built by governments with the purpose of sourcing fuel to build atom bombs. The subsequent decades however saw a widespread commercialization of nuclear power plants, first pioneered by America and Russia and then adopted by Europe. Nuclear power then hit its golden age in the 1970s and 1980s when conflicts in the Middle East caused severe oil supply shocks across the globe. Nations saw nuclear power as a reliable alternative which was able to rival fossil fuel plants such as coal, oil and natural gas. All this momentum came to a sudden standstill however when two major accidents happened within the space of seven years:
Firstly, the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown in 1979 which was caused by human mismanagement of the cooling system. This meant that the water that is used to absorb the emitted thermal energy was deficient, causing the nuclear fuel rods to burn themselves through the entire construction, thereby contaminating the immediate environment radioactively. Though the accident was successfully mitigated and caused no casualties, it presented a wake-up call for lots of Americans which had assumed that these power plants were perfectly safe. Then secondly, in 1986 these doubts were only reaffirmed when a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl completely melted down. Once again, the accident was due to human failure and brute negligence of the Russian state and this time had far reaching consequences on the world stage. While Europe was particularly terrified given that they feared a lethal radioactive cloud could consume their cities, the entire world was watching attentively and taking careful notes as to the hazards nuclear energy was clearly able to cause. The aftermath of this accident can still be felt to this day, seeing that the area around Chernobyl remains to be uninhabitable for human beings.
After 1986, governments received ever-increasing opposition to nuclear power which resulted in a considerable slump of power plant construction. Although this power source managed to recover its reputation over the next two decades, 2011 brought with it what some may consider a final blow when another nuclear reactor melted down in Fukushima due to a major tsunami wiping out the electricity grid. In the wake of this, public perception deteriorated at a rapid pace and governments were pressured to make some changes. Japan immediately announced that it would decommission all its nuclear reactors which was followed by most western nations enacting similar moves. Since 2013, America for instance has only brought one reactor onto the grid, only two have been under construction and a total of 13 plants were fully decommissioned. Over in Europe, Germany also announced the drastic commitment of phasing out all its nuclear power capacity until 2022 (which it had to reverse in August 2022).
In this context, is a nuclear renaissance even desirable? To deal with this question, the following section will make the case both for and against nuclear power.
Starting off with the downsides, the waste produced by nuclear reactors is a major issue. Despite only relatively small amounts being generated, they have two unique characteristics which complicate the storage. On the one hand, the waste is highly radioactive which necessitates immense care when handling it and requires durable containers to be developed. And on the other hand, some of materials found in nuclear waste, such as Plutonium-239, remain highly radioactive for thousands of years, thereby necessitating a storage facility which can ensure containment longer than anybody can reasonably forecast. To provide some tangible statistics, since 1954, about 390,000 tonnes of nuclear waste has been generated which is largely stored in temporary facilities. Although reprocessing technology (processes to decompose the waste into safer materials) has been used sparsely in the past decades, it largely remains too costly to perform on a large scale. In recent years however, promising developments have been made in this field which could bring down the costs to manageable levels.
The second disadvantage of nuclear power is its terrible track record in terms of behind-schedule constructions and skyrocketing costs. Due to the stringent safety regulations imposed on these facilities, the development of nuclear reactors are notorious for their year-long (if not decade-long) delays, while incurring exuberant costs in the process. Investors, therefore, have become wary of moving into the field as the risk attached usually outweighs the potential future cash flows.
Safety concerns around nuclear plants, through a big issue in public debate, is largely overblown. With only 0.03 deaths per terawatt-hour of electricity produced (averaged throughout history) it is considered one of the safest energy sources out there, contrasting with coal energy for instance which is related to 24.7 deaths per terawatt-hour. Similarly, oil energy caused 18.1 deaths per terawatt-hour, and interestingly enough even wind energy entails slightly more deaths standing at 0.04 deaths per terawatt-hour. These figures are indeed striking, given the picture the media and (counterintuitively) most environmental activists usually paint of nuclear reactors.
The second advantage of nuclear energy is that it provides carbon-free baseload power. This means that on top of emitting no CO2-emissions in the process of energy generation, it also is a reliable source of energy which can come online whenever demanded. To comprehend the significance of this characteristic it is worthwhile to briefly walk through how the electricity grid operates.
Essentially, power sources can be dissected into two categories, namely baseload power and intermittent power. Baseload power sources are one’s like nuclear, fossil fuels but also smaller scale alternatives such as biofuel. Their production can be increased on demand and hence are also called dispatchable energy providers, thereby being useful for covering elevated demand during mornings or evenings for example. And secondly, intermittent power sources, like wind and solar energy, supply power based on varying external factors, hereby sunlight and wind speed. Now, to meet the varying demand throughout the day, usually peaking in the morning and in the evening, grid operators need to dynamically signal to the baseload power suppliers to either increase or decrease capacity. For example, during evenings, a time which is characterized by above-average power demand, baseload power plants such as nuclear or fossil fuels scale up their production accordingly to meet this pent-up demand. Therefore, in the absence of such a dispatchable energy provider matters will quickly destabilize and customers will be exposed to frequent blackouts. As a result, until more efficient battery technology is developed which can take on such large scale electricity flows, the fancy renewable energy sources such as wind and solar which are praised frequently in the media are technically speaking not able to replace fossil fuel sources on our energy grid. While it can be conceded that there are select renewable alternatives that are also dispatchable energy providers such as hydrogen fuel, bio-fuel and hydro-electric power, none of them have the scale and efficiency yet to play this substitutive role to fossil fuels. All but one: Nuclear energy.
Thirdly, in terms of resource exploitation nuclear energy fares far better than fossil fuel energy. This is because nuclear power sources emit around 8000 times more energy than traditional fossil fuels which means that substantially less nuclear fuel is needed to produce the same amount of energy. To explain this fact (which most likely has made your jaw drop), it is useful to understand the basic physics of these processes. Nuclear reactors operate by breaking up the bonds within atoms (named nuclear energy) while fossil fuels generate energy by breaking up the bonds between atoms (named chemical energy). Because the former is a vastly stronger force to break up, the emission of energy is correspondingly also an order of magnitude. Hence, the environmental impact of uranium mining is miniscule when compared to the harms of fossil fuel extraction. To emphasize this alternative one only needs to look at the countless devastating accidents over the last decades related to such distraction. One of them was the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, off the coast of Mexico, in which an entire oil rig blew up off the coast of Mexico and was consequently pumping enormous quantities of oil into the open ocean. The images of pelicans being soaked in oil have not left the minds of most to this day. On the same note, a gas leak in 2021 created a truly terrifying yet mesmerizing underwater inferno once again off the coast of Mexico. Coal mining, too, has detrimental effects both on the immediate environment and the worker’s health, exposing them to dangerous quantities of cancerous dust. Because these mines are for the most part located in less developed countries, safety precautions are usually neglected,which they are usually not sufficiently protected against given that most mining facilities are located in less developed countries. Against this backdrop, nuclear energy entails considerably less environmental harm when compared to conventional fossil fuels.
Finally, promising new reactor models, coined Generation IV Nuclear Reactors, have been designed in recent years which show incredible potential in mitigating the risks while also improving efficiency. The most prominent design at this point is the small modular reactor (SMR), which is a scaled-down version of the conventional nuclear reactors. The greatly reduced construction time makes the plant more economical while also allowing for more flexibility, a key requirement for particularly smaller nations. On top of that, there have been ambitions to even build these reactors off-site and then move them only to the site upon completion, possibly allowing for favorable economies of scale to set in. The French and British governments have already pledged to invest more into this technology, and further, companies like Rolls Royce and NuScale who sell such designs have started to gain increased traction. Romania for instance recently bought six such reactors from Nu Scale back on November 4th 2021. Besides SMRs, reactor models such as the thorium reactor or the molten salt reactor also show great potential for further development. In this context, a nuclear renaissance could spur crucial investment into Research and Development in these fields and could open the door to a pivotal move in the world’s energy transition away from fossil fuels and towards a greener future.
Europe is awakening
While nuclear energy has had a difficult past, it seems to remain one of the best energy alternatives for Europe to pursue when accounting for feasibility. Accordingly, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes toward nuclear energy. The European Union, for instance, has made changes to its taxonomy citing nuclear energy and natural gas among the environmentally sustainable economic activities. Even Germany has now openly acknowledged that it is reconsidering the closing of one of its nuclear power plants by this year. Politicians across Europe seem to be waking up to the reality that they are running out of options, and the idealistic approach they have stuck to so far does not resonate very well with a public that is increasingly concerned with freezing throughout winter.
However, Europe is by no means alone in its closer alignment with nuclear power. In fact, China has pioneered the nuclear renaissance for years now, having the most reactors under construction and investing heavily in two new classes of design. Even countries like Saudi Arabia, the largest per capita fossil fuel exporter, have announced that they are looking at moving into the field.
Nuclear energy still seems to be the only way for Europe to wean themselves off their dependency of fossil fuels given the fact that it presents the only scalable carbon-free energy source which provides baseload power. Without it, Europe’s fight against climate change will remain lackluster and it will struggle to truly advance on the mission of saving our environment from dangerously high temperature increases. To say the least, the stakes are high. The planet, and Europe’s energy security, depend on it.