(Analysis) Nuclear Energy Embraced & Shunned Simultaneously Within The EU

(Analysis) Nuclear Energy Embraced & Shunned Simultaneously Within The EU

Nicholas Zalewski
Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in the French village Dampierre-en-Burly. Source: Daily Sabah

As winter continues to approach the cost of energy continues to be an important issue discussed by national politicians. Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine has led to an energy shortage as European Union member states race to find alternative energy sources outside from Russia. For better or for worse, this is yet another area where member states tend to disagree.

While the European Union guides the energy policy and labels certain sources as sustainable, member states must decide their own national energy policy, results in diverse approaches as some members embrace nuclear energy meanwhile others continue to shy away from it. What is clear, however, is that EU nations must work on energy policies to address inflation.

Inflation in the Eurozone hit a record high of 10.6 percent in October of 2022 and it has, without a doubt, contributed to slower economic growth than the once forecasted for this year. As the EU’s goal through numerous rounds of sanctions on Moscow was to cripple the Russian economy, it is clear that member states need to find alternative and reliable, yet cheap, energy sources. EU states need to wean themselves off of Russian oil and gas. However, this is easier said than done. For instance, some member states choose to shorten or completely cut the amount of time national monuments are illuminated at night, cutting the amount of time Christmas lights will be on, and most importantly, setting a limit on the maximum temperature for heat in homes this winter in order to preserve energy reserves.

Where Are EU Countries Standing Regarding Nuclear Energy?

Italy is an interesting case when it comes to the discussion of nuclear energy. Historically, it was one of the largest producers of nuclear energy in Europe and the world. In 1966 the country was the third largest producer only behind the United States and the United Kingdom. Nuclear power was initially introduced in Italy to help support the rapid industrial growth that occurred after World War II. At that time it was considered the nation’s best option for autonomous economic growth, similar to the logic that other member states are now using to justify the construction of nuclear reactors. This, however, changed after the Chornobyl incident. The Italian government at the time decided to hold a referendum on nuclear energy, with a majority of those who participated voting against it. A second referendum was held in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster with the public once again rejecting the idea of reintroducing nuclear energy to Italy.

While nuclear energy may be a cheaper energy source, it still can be incredibly dangerous. A decision from the European Court of Justice earlier this year paved the way for Italy to tap into gas and oil deposits off the coast of the Puglia region — in the Adriatic sea — yet Italians are resistant to this idea. Although a potential disaster could be devastating for the environment and to the tourism industry, Italy’s new governing coalition is expanding the number of permits for drilling in the Adriatic sea.

55 percent of all gas that Germany imported came from Russia before the war and the nation’s struggle to replace it is clear from Germany’s fast-evolving energy policy. While Germany still has some nuclear reactors in use — the Green party which is part of the governing coalition — is still committed to phasing them out. Similar to Italy, there is a lot of pushback on nuclear power. This has been delayed due to Germany’s energy needs. The nation has postponed decommissioning the remaining three reactors to April 2023. The reactors Isar 2, Emsland, and Neckarwestheim 2 will all be available for use until April 15th, unless their decommissioning is deferred again. All three were originally scheduled to be shut down by the end of 2022 but this has been rescheduled in order to prevent an energy shortage. From January to July of 2021 nuclear energy generated 12.4 percent of the nation’s electricity while also dropping to 6 percent in the same period during 2022.

Piles of coal at the dry bulk terminal at Rheinberg-Orsoy harbor near Duisburg, Germany. Source: Reuters

Germany also had to restart coal energy plants. While coal is a very cheap energy source it is one of the most polluting as well, double the emissions of gas and 60 times the emissions of nuclear energy. Germany plans to phase out coal completely by 2030. In the first half of this year alone, coal produced a third of all electricity in Germany, an increase of 27 percent from the first six months of 2021.

Nuclear Energy Comes With Drawbacks

Looking at France’s energy production in 2022, it is possible to see that nuclear energy certainly has its own problems and is not a solution without any drawbacks. Due to lower rainfall than normal, French rivers ran so low that France had to cut the operating capacity of its nuclear reactors in order to prevent damage to wildlife. If the temperature or flow of the river is too low this can have environmental consequences which led to limits being set in 2003 after France experienced another heat wave. EDF also had to shut down half of France’s nuclear reactors due to scheduled maintenance. This maintenance was supposed to take place in 2020 but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As there are concerns over reaching higher temperatures in Europe, member states will need to consider this when deliberating on adding or expanding nuclear energy as part of their energy policy. President Macron fully intends for nuclear energy to help France become carbon neutral, but this is easier said than done. France has 56 reactors more than any other nation in the EU. Due to the required maintenance of half of the reactors, France went from being Europe’s largest energy exporter to an importer. France plans on building six new reactors for a total cost of 50 billion euros, which critics say can be spent on more environmentally friendly sources that would not take as long to build. The aim is to have the first new reactor operational by 2035, leaving France vulnerable to the unstable energy prices the continent is currently experiencing.

Illustration showing nuclear power plants over a map of Poland’s Voivodeships. Source: NS Energy

Nuclear Energy Development in Newer EU Member States

While some nations are against nuclear energy or have seen the drawbacks, Poland is determined to start producing nuclear power by 2033 and have six reactors operational by 2043. There is some skepticism about whether this is achievable within the state timeline. Jakub Wiech, deputy editor-in-chief of Energetyka24.com, believes that 2033 is too ambitious as delays are normal in the construction of a nuclear reactor, particularly when it is a country’s first. Westinghouse, an American company will build Poland’s first nuclear reactor with an estimated price tag of 20 billion dollars, said the reactor will be located in Choczewo — 80 kilometres west of Gdansk. Poland hopes this will reduce its dependence on coal. Currently, coal is responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s energy. Simultaneously the Polish government is working with KHNP, a South Korean company to build another nuclear reactor, which would be located in the center of the country.

Poland had ambitions for nuclear energy in the 1980s but did not have the financial resources to pursue this dream. The plan was also put on hold due to the Chornobyl incident. If Poland’s nuclear energy aspirations are successful now, nuclear energy could produce as much as 30 percent of the nation’s total energy. Besides nuclear, the country is looking to invest in biomass, solar polar, and wind as other sources to reduce its dependency on coal. This would be beneficial for the country as it has run into legal trouble for its coal use. Due to pollution from the Turów coal mine, Poland was ordered by the European Court of Justice to seize operations or pay a daily fine of 500,000 euros. Poland has refused to pay the fine despite continuing operations and instead made a deal with the Czech government for 45 million euros.

Hungary, like Poland, is also working on nuclear energy production. While Poland has taken a strong stance against Russia as a consequence of the invasion of Ukraine, Hungary is working with a Russian company in order to expand its nuclear capabilities. Rosatam, a Russian state-owned company, will construct two nuclear reactors in Hungary. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto stated that the plan is to have both nuclear reactors operational by 2030. Hungary also notably held up the sixth round of EU sanctions in May. Brussels was wishfully optimistic and thought that this round of sanctions would be passed in a matter of days yet instead almost took the entire month. The purpose of this round of sanctions was to ban seaborne crude oil and petroleum products. Prime Minister Viktor Orban was adamant that Hungary could not commit to a timeline to find alternative sources of gas or oil other than Russia as the rest of the member states agreed to in that round of sanctions. Unlike Poland, Hungary has already been producing nuclear energy. Hungary currently has one nuclear reactor in Paks that was built during the 1980s.

Oil pump jacks in an Azerbaijani oilfield in the national capital, Baku. Source: Reuters

European Union Ignores Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict In Quest For Energy

Armenians are angry at what they perceive to be a double standard. The EU has been vocal about finding other countries to import oil from other than Russia due to the devastation in Ukraine. On the other hand, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have increased again and EU member states are importing Azerbaijani energy as an alternative to Russian energy. This puts the Brussels in a difficult situation as it has been calling for nations not to buy energy from Russia while purchasing energy from Azerbaijan. When questioned if the bloc would prevent money sent to Azerbaijan for energy from being spent on human rights violations or conflict, the Brussels responded by stating “the EU does not exercise control over the spending of trade revenues of the third country from legitimate commercial oil and gas operations with the EU Member States.” This appears to create a double standard. The EU is trying to prevent Russia from receiving payment for gas and oil to be potentially spent on the brutality in Ukraine, while simultaneously, Armenia and Azerbaijan have seen bloodshed with over 200 killed in late September in skirmishes on the border. The situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan cannot be directly compared to the invasion of Ukraine but arguably money sent to Azerbaijan by the EU can be used to continue the conflict with Armenia leading to more casualties.

Unfortunately for European Union member states, there is no clear strategy to rapidly and cheaply replace Russian energy, which has led to difficult decisions with finding alternative energy sources. For some member states, this means nuclear energy is an option while others want to decommission any existing reactors or have already done so years ago and do not desire to reinvest. Every energy source has positive and negative aspects. This makes it difficult for states to attempt to craft their energy policies in a way that can provide cheap energy with keeping emission mitigation in mind as well.

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(Analysis) Nuclear Energy…

by Nicholas Zalewski time to read: 8 min