The current energy price spike is something of a storm. But it is also wind in the sails of nuclear energy in Europe, after many years of being given the cold shoulder.
The 2011 Fukushima disaster was a catastrophe for the nuclear sector. Less than three months after the accident, Germany decided to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2022.
The same year, Italy shelved plans to build new nuclear plants in a referendum. Belgium then decided to close down seven nuclear power plants that produce more than 50% of domestic electricity between 2015 and 2025.
Poland had plans to introduce nuclear energy, but public opinion turned against the idea after Fukushima. Bulgaria also debated it before dropping plans for a new nuclear plant.
Even France, which relies on nuclear power for 70% of its electricity, pledged to reduce it to 50% by shutting down 12 nuclear reactors by 2035.
This all sounds like ancient history now. In the aftermath of the energy price spike, intellectuals in Germany have asked this week for the country’s nuclear energy sector to be kept alive.
France, which may effectively shape some of the EU policy when it takes over the rotating Council presidency in January, is also pushing forward a plan for “innovative small-scale nuclear reactors with better waste management”.
Poland has changed its tune, and under its new ultra-conservative government, it has a nuclear programme with the first plant scheduled to open in 2033.
Earlier this week, ten countries led by France and Poland (including Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) asked for nuclear power to respond to the ongoing energy crisis and be a tool towards a low-carbon future.
As a result, the European Commission is now widely expected to propose to include nuclear power as a “green” or “transition” technology under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy.
Countries are also moving forward with their projects. Croatia, which does not want to build nuclear power plants on its territory due to the importance of tourism for its GDP, is investing in a new reactor in the jointly owned Krško plant, in neighbouring Slovenia.
Meanwhile, Hungary keeps building nuclear reactors with Russian technology and loans, and Finland’s Greens have changed their minds and are now backing nuclear power.
So, what happened? How did all the arguments against nuclear suddenly disappear? Why did even some Green politicians, like in Finland, suddenly change the discourse? How did opinion change, and how did nuclear become “green”?
For many, the price spike was a wake-up call. Wind and solar, backed up by gas, is not a sustainable solution, especially as more of us switch to electric cars, for which much more electricity will be needed.
The dilemma is not nuclear or renewable – the dilemma is nuclear or a return to coal plus more gas plants.
For example, in terms of CO2 emissions, nuclear ranks better than wind turbines. If the argument of how to dispose of the nuclear plants waste is raised, well, it’s better to stock it in mines at a depth of 500 meters instead of burning fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
But it seems we needed a crisis to realise that.
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