Last month, a report by Germany’s Green party concluded that 18 nuclear power plants in the European Union are operating without having been subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The conclusions were meant to suggest that the EU’s NPPs are unsafe. However, not only is an EIA a legal requirement that is only required in certain circumstances, it is entirely unrelated to safety.
To address safety considerations, there are bespoke EU stress tests along with national appraisals. However, headline-grabbing news – like the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) recent ruling that a 2015 decision to extend the life of two Belgian nuclear power plants by 10 more years was unlawful because Brussels failed to conduct EIAs – effectively serves to undermine popular support of nuclear power.
That the Belgian greens reacted to the ECJ ruling by stating that “the energy transition towards renewable energy must now be accelerated” indicates greens remain deeply skeptical of nuclear power, while championing renewables. But even in the green movement, the tide is turning.
According to the International Energy Agency, nuclear energy is the second-largest low-carbon power source in the world today, accounting for 10 per cent of global electricity generation. That’s only second to hydropower, which accounts for 16 per cent. It warns that without policy changes, advanced economies could lose 25 per cent of their nuclear capacity by 2025 and as much as two-thirds of it by 2040. If you’re worried about CO2 levels, that’s bad news. Without nuclear power, emissions from electricity generation would have been almost 20 per cent higher between 1971 and 2018, according to the IEA.
Despite policy changes in countries like Germany and Belgium, 50 new nuclear reactors are currently being constructed around the globe (15 of which are in China alone), and new technologies are constantly being developed. Take small modular reactors (SMRs), which are much safer thanks to their reliance on “passive”, less energy-consuming systems. Companies as diverse as NuScale Power, Rolls-Royce and China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) are betting on their success.
And therein lies the rub: while many proponents of renewables and battery technology point at how future technological development will sort out their many shortcomings, very few assume technological progress is possible for nuclear technology. On the contrary, innovations are routinely dismissed out of hand and painted as dangerous.
Case in point is the the Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant, which Greenpeace dubbed “Chernobyl on ice” a bid to play up fears about it before it even set off from Murmansk to Russia’s arctic region. That scaremongering ignores the fact the plant is meant to replace a coal-fired power plant and an ageing nuclear power plant, eliminating about half a million tons of CO2 emissions per year.
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While the Lomonosov is the first of its kind, nuclear reactors have been going to sea since 1955, ever since the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus set off. It’s no surprise then that Finland's Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) has declared that the transport of Akademik Lomonosov along the Gulf of Finland “will not pose any concern”.
Against this backdrop of skepticism towards nuclear energy, it’s important to look at how environmentally friendly and economically efficient renewables are. The production of solar panels and wind turbines requires hazardous materials and – unlike in the case of nuclear waste – there are no proper plans on how to deal with these by-products, which are expected to hit 78 million metric tonnes by 2050.
In a special report on Germany’s 2011 decision to phase out nuclear energy, Der Spiegel notes that the “greatest political project undertaken since Germany's reunification, is facing failure”. The magazine notes how “most of the electricity that Germany needs is still produced by burning coal.'' It adds that “technologically speaking, it's possible to make the energy system free of fossil fuels by 2050,” but that it could cost Germany up to “€3.4 trillion”. This, after German electricity prices have already gone through the roof in recent years.
According to the magazine, “there is hardly a wind energy project that is not fought”, with citizens wary of electrical transmission towers pushing politicians to bury electrical lines “underground”, which is “many times more expensive and takes years longer.” As a result, the magazine concludes that “the wind power boom is over”.
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What’s more, Germany’s decision was a kneejerk reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan, a move that was not endorsed by all environmentalists. One of the UK’s most respected environmental activists, George Monbiot, wrote that “as a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology”, explaining that this really amounted to the ultimate test for nuclear power: “A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami.[…] Yet, as far as we know no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation”, a figure revised by the Japanese government to 1 last year.
As always in politics, it’s never black and white. A fair debate must involve taking into account the pros and cons of all energy sources. It also means examining both the present and future potential of a technology to respond to the world’s energy challenges. And with all things considered, nuclear energy deserves a fairer chance.