Is Europe’s Nuclear Phaseout Starting to Phase Out?

France re-ups aggressive fission policy; Poland and Romania expand theirs; EU frameworks will treat some nukes as sustainable

3 min read

Electricity pylons and power lines stand among nuclear towers with steam rising out of them.

The Golfech nuclear power plant in the Occitanie region in southern France has been operating, according to the World Nuclear Association, since 1990.

Jean-Marc Barrere/Hans Lucas/Redux

In the depths of the 1970s oil crisis, French prime minister Pierre Messmer saw an opportunity to transform his country’s energy supply. His plan’s legacy is the dozens of cooling towers rising from the French landscape, marking the nuclear power stations that produce over two-thirds of France’s electricity, by far the highest proportion of any country on Earth.

Yet in a world where Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi smolder in recent memories, France’s cooling towers might seem like hopeless relics. Philippsburg, an old fortress town in Germany just 40 kilometers from the French border, once hosted a nuclear power plant with two towers just like them. A demolition crew brought both down on an overcast day in early 2020. The event was abrupt and unceremonious, its time kept secret to prevent crowds from gathering amidst the first wave of COVID-19.

Following somewhat in Messmer's footsteps, French president Emmanuel Macron announced a plan earlier this month to build at least six new reactors to help the country decarbonize by 2050.

At first glance, there’s little life to be found in the nuclear sectors of France’s neighbors. Germany’s coalition government is today forging ahead with a publicly popular plan to shutter the country’s remaining nuclear reactors by the end of 2022. The current Belgian government plans to shut down its remaining reactors by 2025. Switzerland is doing the same, albeit with a hazy timetable. Spain plans to start phasing out in 2027. Italy hasn’t hosted nuclear power at all since 1990.

France can claim a qualified victory: Under current EU guidelines, at least some nuclear power will be categorized as “green.”

Some of these antinuclear forces have recently found a sparring ground with France in drafting the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy, which delineates particular energy sources as “green.” The taxonomy sets incentives for investment in “green” technologies, instead of setting hard policy, but it’s an important benchmark.

“A lot of investors…they’re not experts in this topic, and they’re trying to understand: What’s really sustainable, and what is greenwashing?” says Darragh Conway, a climate policy expert at Climate Focus in Amsterdam. “And I think a lot of them will look to official standards that have been adopted, such as the EU’s taxonomy.”

France, naturally, backed nuclear power’s greenness. Scientists from the EU Joint Research Centre agreed, reporting that nuclear power doesn’t cause undue environmental harm, despite the need to store nuclear waste.

The report was quickly blasted by ministers from five countries, including Germany and Spain, who argued that including nuclear power in the taxonomy “would permanently damage its integrity, credibility and therefore its usefulness.”

But the pronuclear side can claim a qualified victory: As of now, at least, some nuclear power is slated to receive the label.

(So, incidentally, will natural gas, which the current German government actually favored.)

This row over green finance obscures an unfortunate reality: It’s uncertain how the power once generated by fission will be made up if plants go offline. The obvious answer might be solar and wind. After all, the cost of renewables continues to plummet. But to decarbonize Europe’s grid in short order, the renewable requirements are already steep, and removing nuclear energy from the picture makes it even harder to match that curve.

“Even in the most ambitious scenarios but the most ambitious countries, it is an incredible undertaking to try to deploy that much in terms of renewables to meet the climate goals,” says Adam Stein, a nuclear policy expert at the Breakthrough Institute. It's possible for some countries to succeed, he says, but that would likely involve them buying an outsized share of the world’s supply of renewable energy infrastructure, threatening to prevent other countries from reaching their goals.

This reality has come to the forefront as gas prices spiked over Europe’s past winter. France continued to export its nuclear power as supplies of politically sensitive Russian natural gas ran thinner. Unlike the concrete in reactor shielding, public opinion isn’t set, and indications are that rising energy costs are softening attitudes to atoms, at least in Germany.

And other countries are charting new nuclear courses. Poland has begun forging ahead with French-backed plans to build a half dozen nuclear reactors by 2043. In October, Romania adopted a plan to double its nuclear capacity by 2031. Closer to the Atlantic, in December, a new Dutch coalition government stated its ambition to build two new nuclear power plants, declaring them a necessity to meet climate targets that aren’t falling any further away.

It’s entirely possible that the picture might change as solar and wind costs continue to fall and as renewables expand. After all, in sharp contrast to those two, the average price of nuclear electricity had actually nudged upward by 26 percent between 2010 and 2019.

“Whether nuclear is more cost effective than renewables, it does differ per country,” says Conway. “In a lot of countries, nuclear is already more expensive than renewables.”

But Stein says that the idea of looking at nuclear as a bottleneck for renewables is flawed—when the real target should be to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. “We need every clean energy source, building as much as they can, as fast as they can. It’s not one versus the other,” he says.

The Conversation (4)
Hedley Rokos
Hedley Rokos17 Feb, 2022

So France wants to push ahead with uranium-based fission, which has waste storage requirements into the distant future, and Germany wants a total ban on generation using fission. Uranium-based fission was developed ahead of other possibilities because of its potential for creating nuclear arms. Thorium-based fission would seem to be the rational route out of the impasse: a bit long term (but sooner and more certain than fusion, even now), still not perfect, but the waste is much easier to manage, the raw materials more plentiful, plant costs lower (once the technology has been developed). And as a bonus, making it more widely available would pull the plug out from nations wishing to develop nuclear energy for its weapons capability. [Good start, India]

What am I missing?

Mark Jamison
Mark Jamison13 Feb, 2022

Wind and Solar Power are charismatic but not sustainable energy sources. Nuclear and natural gas eats wind and solar for lunch, but no one dare say that aloud.

That’s the real conceit in the agreement.

1 Reply
FB TS11 Feb, 2022

Imagine that back in the 70s if some people said "ALL cars/trucks are producing so much pollution! We should/must get rid of all of them & switch back to horse-carriages!"!

& the whole world switched & today we never had autonomous electric cars etc because all such tech development had been stopped decades ago!

Energy usage of humanity is keep increasing fast!

Imagine a future when all home/building heating/cooling & cooking done using electricity only!

Imagine almost everybody charges electric cars at home every night!

Imagine all industrial production done using only electricity!

Imagine seawater desalinization done commonly all over the world!

Solar & wind power could really be enough for all (future) needs of humanity?

Answer: Absolutely NOT!

Of course, the ultimate goal always needs to be switching completely to fusion power someday

but until that time, humanity will absolutely need (advanced/safer) fission power!!!

How about nuclear waste problem?

The only reason nuclear waste problem exists today, is because, some people prevented construction of kind of nuclear power plants

which could use spent nuclear fuel from regular power plants as fuel, by keep claiming they would cause nuclear proliferation!

But the very clear evidence from real world very clearly shows/proves that not constructing such nuclear power plants

never actually prevents any willing countries, like N Korea & Iran, from nuclear proliferation!