On the last day of 2021, as final preparations were being made for the New Year’s Eve firework display in central Berlin, outside the German capital another era was drawing to a close. It was the beginning of the end of Germany's decades-long dalliance with nuclear power.
On December 31, Germany shut down three of its six remaining nuclear plants. By the end of 2022, the other three will be shut as well. Two decades after an agreement to eliminate nuclear power became law, the country’s phaseout has been dramatic. In 2002, Germany relied on nuclear power for nearly 30 percent of its electricity. Within a year, that percentage will be zero.
Germany isn’t the only European nation reevaluating its relationship with nuclear energy. Its neighbor Belgium currently sources nearly 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power but has committed to closing down its seven remaining reactors by 2025. To the south, Switzerland has already shut down one of its five remaining nuclear power plants, the first stage in what will eventually be a total phaseout.
Switzerland’s phaseout was decided in a 2017 referendum, when the majority of the public endorsed an energy strategy that subsidized renewables and banned new nuclear power plants. The Swiss referendum was driven by environmental concerns raised in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, when three reactors melted after a tsunami overwhelmed the power plant. That disaster, and concerns about the disposal of nuclear waste, also hastened Germany’s nuclear shutdown. Shortly afterward, then-chancellor Angela Merkel—who had previously said she didn’t agree with shutting down nuclear plants early—announced that Germany would no longer extend the operating life of existing plants.
Critics of Europe’s nuclear shutdowns say losing reliable sources of low-carbon energy is the last thing we should be doing when we need to reduce emissions. They argue nuclear is one of the safest and lowest-carbon forms of electricity generation there is. In France, nearly 70 percent of electricity is generated by nuclear power plants, which is why it has some of the lowest-carbon electricity anywhere in Europe. Nuclear skeptics, on the other hand, say nuclear’s low-carbon credentials are undercut by its high costs and the long timelines involved in building new plants, as well as long-standing public concerns about safety and radioactive waste.
Looming over Europe’s nuclear slowdown is the pressing need for the continent to completely decarbonize its electricity supply. The EU has set itself the target of having net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050, and the plan relies on delivering a sizable chunk of those reductions by 2030. Critics of Germany’s nuclear plan have pointed out the contradiction of abandoning nuclear energy while the country’s coal-fired power plants continue to pump vast amounts of carbon dioxide and deadly particulate into the atmosphere. But if there’s any lesson we can draw from Europe’s nuclear dilemma, it’s that the pathway to clean electricity is littered with obstacles: political, economical, and ideological.
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Europe's attitude toward nuclear power is split between boosters and naysayers, with each country putting its own spin on the technology. France is by far the continent’s biggest provider of nuclear power and wants to export its technology to other countries within Europe, says Raphael Hanoteaux, a senior policy advisor at the European climate change think tank E3G. The Hungarian government, keen to ensure a stable domestic energy supply, has also signed off on Russian-financed deals to construct two nuclear reactors, in addition to the country’s four existing ones. The Czech Republic government also has plans to build at least two new nuclear reactors, while the Polish government wants to build the country’s first nuclear reactor in a bid to move away from its heavy dependence on coal.
But even countries that have enthusiastically stuck to nuclear power are experiencing the troubles that come with aging reactor fleets and delayed building schedules. At the end of 2021, 17 of France’s 56 nuclear reactors were paused because of planned maintenance or technical problems, forcing the country—which is usually a net exporter of electricity—to buy from its neighbors. In the UK, nuclear electricity generation fell last year to its lowest level since 1981 due to retirements and outages at aging plants, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief. The shortfall in the UK’s nuclear generation was plugged with electricity from gas-fired power plants and imports from Europe.
The problem is that not enough new nuclear reactors are being constructed to fill these gaps. And those that are coming online aren’t being built quickly enough. The UK will retire six of its nuclear reactors by 2030, but it only has one power plant currently under construction: a two-reactor facility being built in Somerset. The UK government is hoping to secure a deal for another identical plant at a site in Suffolk. But even if this is approved, the two plants together will only match the existing capacity of the UK’s nuclear fleet. France’s latest nuclear reactor, meanwhile, was meant to come online in Normandy in 2013, but frequent delays have pushed its opening date back to 2023.
These lengthy time scales mean that building new nuclear power plants might not be the best way for countries to decarbonize rapidly. The UK and Germany have both set targets to end electricity generation from fossil fuel by 2035, which is too short a timescale to add much significant nuclear power. “You cannot build a nuclear plant in that time frame,” says Dries Acke, director of energy systems at the think tank European Climate Foundation.
And while the construction of new plants has been sluggish, wind and solar power have been deployed at a faster rate than expected. “What’s happened is that renewables have dominated deployment in the EU,” says Antony Frogatt, deputy director of Chatham House’s environment and society program and a coauthor of an annual report critiquing the nuclear power industry. In 2000, 860 terawatt-hours of electricity were generated from nuclear power in the EU, but by 2020 that had declined to 685 terawatt-hours. Over the same time period, wind generation alone went from 21 to 396 terawatt-hours. Meanwhile, the cost of renewable energy plummeted in comparison to nuclear energy.
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The French government is hoping a new kind of reactor could provide a boost for its nuclear efforts. French president Emmanuel Macron has announced a €30 billion ($35 billion) investment plan that includes funding for small modular reactors—lower-capacity plants would theoretically be faster and cheaper to build and could be placed in areas that are unsuitable for large plants. The UK government has also put £210 million ($286 million) behind the development of small modular reactors, but so far the only such reactors to have been connected to a grid anywhere in the world are two that make up a floating power plant docked in Pevek harbor, in the remote northeast of Russia.
Dries thinks the share of nuclear power in Europe's energy mix will continue to decline, even if plans for proposed plants in the Czech Republic and Poland go ahead. “I think that the declining trend is stronger than the upward trend in Europe,” he says. The question is whether countries replace their aging plants with more renewables or lean on fossil fuels to plug the gap. Not every nation will take the same approach. As Akshat Rathi and Will Mathis note on Bloomberg, the same social and political forces that led to Germany turning its back on nuclear helped it become a powerhouse for renewable energy. The path to zero emissions, it turns out, does not necessarily run in a straight line.
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