As Climate Constraints Nears Europe Reconsiders Nuclear Power

Poland plans to build a fleet of smaller nuclear power plants to help it transition away from coal. Rolls-Royce is being tasked by the British government with producing low-cost modular reactors to supplement wind and solar energy. In France, President Emmanuel Macron intends to expand the country’s massive nuclear program. 

The nuclear sector sees an opportunity for a comeback as world leaders resolve to avoid a climate disaster. After being sidelined for years following the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters, campaigners are battling to have nuclear energy recognized as a viable source of sustainable energy alongside solar and wind. 

Several European governments have lately announced plans to construct a new generation of nuclear reactors. Some are smaller and less expensive than older designs, taking up less than two football fields and costing a fraction of the price of traditional nuclear power stations. The Biden administration also sees this technology as a means for “mass decarbonization” in the US. 

However, not everyone believes that nuclear power is a viable solution to climate change. 

Ten years ago, just months after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, forcing the evacuation of over 150,000 people, the German government stated that it would phase out its nuclear program gradually. Germany now leads a coalition of countries seeking to defuse efforts to incorporate additional nuclear power into Europe’s green energy mix. They are concerned about the proliferation of nuclear power facilities on European soil, as well as the radioactive waste produced by these units. 

The backlash is causing friction with France, Europe’s largest nuclear energy producer, which has formed an odd alliance with Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, all of which want to attract additional nuclear power investment. 

The group is urging the European Union to categorize nuclear energy as a “sustainable” venture, which would open up billions of euros in state aid and investment from pension funds, banks, and other investors interested in supporting environmental causes. Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Spain have joined Germany in attempting to derail the Brussels proposal. 

The nuclear industry’s key selling point is a technology that uses scaled-down units, sometimes known as small modular reactors, which supporters claim are safe, inexpensive, and efficient. The idea is that wind and solar power alone will not be sufficient to help countries fulfill the goals set forth at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, this month. 

At the meeting, nearly 200 countries vowed additional measures to keep the Earth from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Scientists warn that if you cross that line, the probability of lethal heatwaves and storms, water scarcity, and ecological collapse skyrockets. 

Nuclear proponents argue that the current situation demonstrates the necessity for a new generation of nuclear power. 

Nuclear power, argue critics, isn’t a viable option for accelerating the transition to net-zero emissions. 

For starters, new nuclear power plants, even small ones, will take a decade or more to come online, partly due to regulatory restrictions, which are much too slow to meet a climate emergency. The first Rolls-Royce reactor isn’t expected to go online until 2031. After high-profile nuclear accidents, safety issues have lingered, as have unsolved worries about the storage of radioactive waste. 

Even as they increase investments in wind and solar power, whose output swings with the weather, governments are falling far short. The reopening of the global economy following the epidemic resulted in a recent surge in energy prices, forcing European governments to scramble for new power sources. 

planned Polish reactor that, according to the German Green Party, would most likely pollute Germany if it were to fail. 

It’s also unclear if small nuclear reactors can provide power quickly or cheaply enough to matter to countries. 

Macron declared last month in France that the country’s nuclear program would be restarted in order to “live up to” the country’s promises to reduce carbon emissions. According to recent government-commissioned research, France would most likely not be able to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 with just renewable energy. 

The rush has already begun in Eastern Europe. Poland, Romania, and Ukraine, which have traditionally relied on coal-fired power plants, are among the countries that have signed contracts for small-reactor technology with US and European companies. Poland alone intends to construct huge nuclear reactors and at least a half-dozen smaller ones at coal-fired power plants for generating power and creating jobs. 

Even if politicians desperately want to meet climate change targets, Europe’s nuclear division remains deep enough that officials may be unable to approve a nuclear expansion program. 

However, as investors consider how to invest trillions of dollars in the transition away from fossil fuels, nuclear power is becoming more difficult to dismiss.