This is the second chapter in The Road to COP26 series.
Nuclear power has some really big problems, which is why many EU countries are shutting down their reactors — but the accelerating pace of climate change is prompting second thoughts.
There is growing queasiness in parts of Europe over plans by France, Germany, Spain and Belgium to shut down 32 nuclear reactors, representing 31.9 GW of CO2-free electricity capacity, by 2035.
“We can’t afford to shut down nuclear because we’re going to build more coal like Germany has done over the last 15 years — frankly to its shame,” said Sean Kidney, CEO of Climate Bonds Initiative and a member of the European Commission’s advisory Platform on Sustainable Finance. “Emissions reduction is a critical metric, you can’t discount something just because you don’t like it.”
It’s not that there’s a wave of enthusiasm for building new nuclear capacity in Western Europe — but the climate cost of shutting down plants instead of squeezing more years of operation out of them is increasingly acute. That’s highlighted by grim warnings from climate scientists about the dwindling amount of CO2 the world can afford to emit in the next decade.
“Some of those reactors are in good enough shape for regulators to authorize an extension, with the necessary maintenance and security precautions, for two, five, 10 years,” European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton said Friday at an annual business conference, adding: “Why deprive ourselves of this production capacity?”
That line of thinking mirrors recommendations from the International Energy Agency to “authorize lifetime extensions of existing nuclear plants for as long as safely possible.”
A very small but growing movement to rethink nuclear shutdowns is bolstering that idea.
On September 11, a “Stand Up for Nuclear” demonstration pitching the atom as a decarbonization solution is scheduled to take place in Brussels.
This summer, regular tiny demonstrations organized by Nuklearia and Mothers for Nuclear Germany-Austria-Switzerland were held at Germany’s six remaining reactors, calling for a reversal of the policy to shut them down by the end of next year. The groups cite opinion polls showing declining, albeit still majority, support for the phaseout.
“We need both nuclear and renewables in order to phase out fossil fuels — our political message and top priority is to save the six remaining reactors in order to avoid emissions of 70 million tons of CO2 each year,” said Rainer Klute, volunteer chairman of Nuklearia who works in IT and data protection by day.
So far that pressure hasn’t changed any national policies.
Germany is sticking with its plan to close down its nuclear plants — a process sped up by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Belgium also still aims to close down its reactors; a request by utility Electrabel to extend the lives of several by another 20 years was nixed by the government last year. Instead, Belgium is preparing an auction in October to replace the first nuclear reactor to turn off with a fleet of gas-fired plants.
Last week, a group of nuclear engineers published an open letter to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo asking for a reconsideration.
“The construction of new gas-fired power plants will probably be necessary, yet extending the most recent nuclear reactors could still reduce their number,” the letter reads.
France gets more than two-thirds of its electricity from nuclear — giving it the lowest emissions of any major economy. That’s a stark contrast with Germany, where nuclear generates 11 percent of power, while fossil fuels account for 44 percent — 24 percent of that from coal.
French President Emmanuel Macron is sticking with his promise to reduce the nuclear share in the power mix to 50 percent by 2035, but he has yet to decide whether to invest in replacing the oldest reactors with a new generation of very expensive and technologically troubled European Pressurized Reactors, like the one now under construction in Flamanville.
Rethinking nuclear is happening elsewhere in the bloc.
Sweden’s decision to halt nuclear expansion after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. — and shut off reactors by 2010 — was deferred as demand for clean power rose. Nuclear now generates 42 percent of electricity — and expanding that share is a lively part of the debate ahead of next year’s parliamentary election.
In Spain, the Socialist government announced in 2019 that it would switch off the country’s seven nuclear reactors between 2025 and 2035, with the goal of relying fully on renewables by mid-century. But this year’s soaring power prices, caused largely by spikes in natural gas and EU carbon prices, are drawing public attention to the nuclear power that provides one-fifth of the country’s electricity.
The conservative opposition People’s Party thinks that should prompt a reassessment of “clean, cheap and safe” nuclear power if national regulators determine lifetime extensions beyond 2035 are possible.
Nuclear still has outright advocates in the EU. France, Slovakia and Finland are building new plants, with nuclear plans in various stages of preparation in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.
In Italy, newly appointed Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani suggested this spring that his country — which has twice rejected nuclear by popular referendum — consider futuristic small modular reactors (SMRs) when they become available.
“Should the European Commission consider it a source of clean energy, it would be our duty to have a discussion and consider mini-reactors … leaving aside any ideology,” said Cingolani, a physicist by training.
SMRs are being touted in other countries as a potential way to build cheaper nuclear power stations that could provide a low, stable base of electricity to undergird fluctuating renewables, without the massive price tag and construction time of a full-sized unit.
The Commission convened a closed-door workshop on SMRs this summer to hear the latest updates from the industry. It will decide whether to include nuclear in its taxonomy list of sustainable investments before the fall.
“In nuclear, just accept that what’s there is low-carbon, separate it from new nuclear. I sort of think we need to accept renovation and maintenance of existing nuclear,” said Kidney.