Europe’s nuclear hesitancy … Opposition to nuclear power, coupled with other factors, has created a 25 percent overall decline in electricity …

In the midst of the ongoing energy crisis, nuclear energy is regaining popularity after years of decline. Could it turn out to be the answer to Europe’s persistent energy problems?

Europe is preparing for a protracted, icy winter. In the months to come, millions of people across the continent may have to deal with blackouts, gas shortages, and frigid houses as the continuing energy crisis worsens. Many households are worried about what the winter will bring as they already struggle with soaring expenses, and hundreds of small businesses risk going out of business if they can’t pay their energy bills.

According to experts, two-thirds of UK households may fall into fuel poverty by January as a result of prolonged price increases that will affect all income levels of families. The prognosis seems gloomy despite a series of government actions that are planned. As we enter the coldest months of the year, the energy situation, which has been made worse by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, shows no indications of abating. The worst-case scenario, according to the UK’s National Grid, could result in daily three-hour blackouts for families, evoking memories of the power outages that afflicted Britain in the early 1970s.

It is becoming more and more obvious that there will be long-term effects from the events of the previous year as political leaders in Europe try to deal with the crisis’ immediate effects. In many ways, the crisis has permanently altered the continent’s energy landscape. Despite recent pledges to phase out fossil fuels, most notably at the COP26 summit last year, Europe still depends heavily on imported oil and gas. Russia, the EU’s top supplier of natural gas and petroleum products, has drastically reduced its gas supplies to Europe over the past year, down by 88 percent. In light of this, energy security has abruptly risen to the top of the political agenda.

Countries all around the world are now reevaluating their stance on nuclear power after years of scepticism and anxiety, persuaded by its potential to provide an effective and dependable domestic source of energy in the long run. However, with Chernobyl and Fukushima’s terrible calamities still fresh in people’s minds, not everyone is persuaded.

But is the outlook for nuclear power changing now that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has revealed significant flaws in Europe’s energy infrastructure?

Firing up

The debate over nuclear power is one of the few topics that is certain to produce such polarised opinions. For those in favour of investing in nuclear power, it is a clean, effective energy source that has a lower carbon impact than geothermal and solar alternatives combined. Those who oppose it, however, contend that the hazards simply exceed the advantages given that there have been over 30 catastrophic nuclear disasters at nuclear reactors worldwide since the early 1950s, with Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011 sparking significant safety concerns.

Ten years after the Fukushima tragedy, popular opposition to nuclear power appears unlikely to prevent its growth. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has increased its predictions for yearly nuclear electricity generation for the first time since the 2011 tragedy, reflecting a substantial change in nuclear policy globally. With Prime Minister Fumio Kishida revealing plans to revive some of the nation’s idled nuclear plants and announcing intentions to create next-generation nuclear reactors, Japan is surprisingly at the very forefront of this nuclear rebirth.

The economies of Europe are following suit, and even ardent opponents of nuclear power are starting to change their minds. Following the Fukushima accident in 2011, Germany made a definite decision to abandon nuclear power. However, it is now reconsidering its position and has plans to put off the closing of its remaining nuclear reactors. In order to fully phase out nuclear energy by the end of 2022, the nation’s final three nuclear power plants were set to be permanently shut down in December. Due to the ongoing energy crisis, two of the three plants will now continue to run through at least mid-April in order to serve as a “emergency reserve” for this winter.

The decision to extend the lifespan of Germany’s final power plants is a dramatic U-turn for the nuclear-averse country, even though German chancellor Olaf Scholz has emphasised that he remains dedicated to the country’s nuclear phase-out. The situation in Belgium is comparable across the border. The country has chosen to extend the lives of its two newest reactors by at least another 10 years despite having earlier vowed to completely eliminating nuclear power by 2025. The extension undoes a decision made in December 2021 to close the facilities, keeping nuclear a significant part of Belgium’s energy mix for years to come.

Meanwhile, Britain is drawing ideas from its nuclear-supporting neighbour across the Channel. In September, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a commitment to nuclear energy as one of his final acts as leader by pledging £700 million for the development of the new Sizewell C power station in Suffolk. Johnson’s million-pound promise sends a strong message that nuclear power will surely be at the centre of the UK’s future energy strategy, urging his successor to “go nuclear and go large.”

Is it Arriving Late and Insufficient?

While there does seem to be renewed interest in nuclear energy, both in Europe and elsewhere, the current energy crisis may not be significantly alleviated by this recent shift in course. For nations experiencing energy shortages throughout the winter, keeping soon-to-close power plants on standby may be a reassuring backup plan, but the tactic won’t instantly lead to energy independence.

The fact that nuclear energy gives countries greater energy security and independence is one of the main justifications for doing so, with France standing out as an obvious success example. France has an energy independence rating of 53.4%, one of the highest rates in the EU, and gets over 70% of its electricity from nuclear power (see Fig. 1). While having this amount of autonomy makes the country less vulnerable to Russian gas supply interruptions, it is difficult to replicate the French system.

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