Author: Rachel Richards
January 24, 2023
Europe is bracing itself for a long, cold winter. Blackouts, gas shortages and unheated homes could well become a reality for millions across the continent in the months to come, as the ongoing energy crisis continues to escalate. Already grappling with skyrocketing bills, many families are fearful of what the winter will bring, while thousands of small businesses may be forced to close if they can’t keep up their energy payments.
By January, experts warn that two-thirds of UK households could be pushed into fuel poverty, with sustained higher prices set to impact families at all levels of the income spectrum. Despite a package of planned government interventions, the outlook appears bleak. The energy crisis – exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine – shows no signs of abating as we head into the coldest months of the year. In the worst case scenario, the UK’s National Grid has cautioned that families could face daily three-hour blackouts, bringing back memories of the power cuts that plagued Britain in the early 1970s.
As political leaders across Europe look to deal with the immediate impacts of the crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be long-term ramifications from the events of the past year. The crisis has, in many ways, changed the continent’s energy landscape forever. Despite recent commitments to phasing out fossil fuels – including most notably at last year’s COP26 conference – Europe remains largely dependent on imported oil and gas. Russia, the largest supplier of natural gas and petroleum oils to the EU, has cut its exports of gas to Europe by 88 percent over the past year. Against this backdrop, energy security has suddenly rocketed up the political agenda.
After years of scepticism and apprehension, countries around the world are now reassessing their position on nuclear power – persuaded by its potential to provide an efficient and reliable domestic source of energy in the long term. Not everyone is convinced, however, with the catastrophic disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima looming large in the public consciousness.
But with the Russia-Ukraine war exposing fundamental weaknesses in Europe’s energy supplies, is the tide set to turn on nuclear power?
Few issues are guaranteed to generate as polarised a debate as the question of nuclear power. For those in favour of nuclear investment, it represents a clean and efficient form of energy, with a smaller carbon footprint than both solar and geothermal alternatives. Its opponents, meanwhile, argue that the risks simply outweigh the benefits: over 30 serious nuclear incidents have occurred at nuclear plants around the world since the early 1950s, with Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster stoking significant fears over safety.
Now, a decade on from the Fukushima accident, public reservations on nuclear power look unlikely to deter its expansion. For the first time since the 2011 disaster, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has raised its projections for annual nuclear electricity generation, reflecting a significant shift on nuclear policy around the globe. Japan is unexpectedly at the very forefront of this nuclear revival, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announcing plans to restart a number of the country’s idled nuclear plants, and setting intentions to develop next-generation nuclear reactors.
Europe economies are following suit, with even staunch nuclear sceptics beginning to revise their policy position. Germany, which firmly turned away from nuclear following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, is now rethinking its approach, with plans to postpone the closure of its remaining nuclear plants. The country’s last three nuclear power stations were due to be permanently switched off in December, as part of plans to completely phase out nuclear energy by the end of 2022. Two of the three plants will now remain operational until at least mid-April, in order to provide an ‘emergency reserve’ this winter as the energy crisis rumbles on. While the German chancellor Olaf Scholz has insisted that he remains committed to the country’s nuclear phase-out, the decision to extend the lifespan of its last power stations marks a significant U-turn for the nuclear-adverse nation. It’s a similar story across the border in Belgium. The nation had previously committed to abandoning nuclear power entirely by 2025, but has since decided to extend the lives of its two newest reactors by at least another 10 years. Reversing a decision made in December 2021 to shut the plants, the extension will keep nuclear as a key component of the Belgian energy mix for years to come.
Britain, meanwhile, is taking inspiration from its pro-nuclear neighbour across the Channel. In September, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged £700m for the construction of the new Sizewell C power station in Suffolk, committing to nuclear as one of the final acts of his premiership. Calling on his successor to “go nuclear and go large,” Johnson’s million-pound pledge sent a clear message that nuclear power will undoubtedly be at the heart of the UK’s future energy strategy.
Too little, too late?
While there certainly appears to be renewed enthusiasm for nuclear energy – both in Europe and further afield – this recent change in direction may do little to resolve the current energy crisis. Keeping soon-to-close power stations on standby may be a reassuring back-up plan for countries facing energy shortages over the winter, but the strategy won’t create energy independence overnight.
One of the strongest arguments for investing in nuclear power is that it grants nations greater energy security and independence – with France standing out as an obvious success story. Deriving almost 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power (see Fig 1), France boasts an energy independence rating of 53.4 percent – one of the highest rates in the EU. While this level of autonomy means that the nation is less exposed to Russian cuts to gas supplies, replicating the French model is not easily achieved.
Nuclear power stations are famously time-intensive to build, with the average construction time for reactors coming in at just under 10 years. Compared with renewable alternatives, nuclear power plants are also much more costly to both build and operate – and then there are the additional expenses of decommissioning and waste disposal to consider. For any country wanting to follow in France’s nuclear footprints, they will need to be prepared for high costs and slow progress.
It’s clear that nuclear isn’t a short-term solution. The immediacy of the current crisis requires swift action to keep bills down and keep lights on, and nuclear is anything but swift. Investing in nuclear power won’t solve this winter’s energy crisis – but it could stop the next crisis from hitting as hard. With the energy landscape so dramatically transformed by the events of the past year, energy security is understandably a long-term priority for the EU, and nuclear power could prove crucial to achieving this goal.
If the recent energy crisis has sparked a renewed interest in nuclear power worldwide, it has also exposed the dangers of nuclear over-reliance. Nuclear-dependent France is facing its very own energy predicament while the rest of Europe grapples with cuts to Russian gas supplies. This year, 57 percent of the country’s nuclear reactors have been shut down due to corrosion problems, technical issues and long-overdue maintenance works – with repairs outstanding from the multiple COVID-19 lockdowns. With so many plants offline, French power output has fallen to a 30-year low, making the country a net importer of energy for the first time since records began a decade ago.
After years of scepticism and apprehension, countries around the world are now reassessing their position on nuclear power
France’s recent nuclear strife illustrates the importance of creating and maintaining a diverse energy mix. Over-reliance on a single form of energy – whether that be domestic nuclear power or imported natural gas – can only leave a country exposed when unexpected setbacks occur. A hybrid energy system, combining cutting-edge renewables with nuclear power, may just be the future of the European energy landscape.
Achieving the ambitious targets established in the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change will require a dramatic transformation of the global energy system, and a pivot towards carbon-zero sources. Whether nuclear power can be classed as truly ‘clean’ remains hotly debated, given that each reactor generates not-insignificant quantities of long-lasting radioactive waste. However, it is true that it remains an efficient and reliable source of carbon-free electricity – and one that isn’t affected by meteorological fluctuations, as is the case with solar and wind power.
While 100 percent renewable energy may be the ultimate goal for climate-conscious countries around the world, a hybrid approach may be more readily achievable in the near term. Already, major economies such as Sweden have been able to completely decarbonise their power grids through a blended use of nuclear, hydropower and other renewables, demonstrating the potential of a hybrid system.
Nuclear isn’t a magical cure-all for the challenges of fossil fuel dependence and energy insecurity, but it could provide some welcome relief in the years to come. Long-sidelined and still met with opposition from many, nuclear’s new resurgence may not be popular but it may prove necessary – if Europe wishes to make this energy crisis its last.