President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels Photograph:( AFP )
As world leaders pledge to avert a climate catastrophe, the nuclear industry sees an opportunity for a revival
European countries desperate for a long-term and reliable source of energy to help reach ambitious climate goals are turning to an answer that caused earlier generations to shudder: nuclear power.
Poland wants a fleet of smaller nuclear power stations to help end its reliance on coal. Britain is betting on Rolls-Royce to produce cheap modular reactors to complement wind and solar energy. And in France, President Emmanuel Macron plans to build on the nation’s huge nuclear program.
As world leaders pledge to avert a climate catastrophe, the nuclear industry sees an opportunity for a revival. Sidelined for years after the disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl, advocates are wrangling to win recognition of nuclear energy, alongside solar and wind, as an acceptable source of clean power.
More than half a dozen European countries recently announced plans to build a new generation of nuclear reactors. Some are smaller and cheaper than older designs, occupying the space of two football fields and costing a fraction of the price of standard nuclear plants. The Biden administration is also backing such technology as a tool of “mass decarbonization” for the United States.
“Nuclear is going mainstream in the climate movement,” said Kirsty Gogan, a member of Britain’s Nuclear Innovation Research and Advisory Board and a founder of TerraPraxis, a nonprofit that supports nuclear energy in the shift to a green economy. “This is a critical decade, and I think we’re going to see real change.”
But not everyone is buying the idea that nuclear is a solution to climate change.
Ten years ago, a few months after an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which forced the evacuation of over 150,000 people, the German government announced it would gradually shut down its nuclear program. Now Germany is at the head of a group of nations that want to defuse efforts to include more nuclear power in Europe’s green energy mix. They are worried about a proliferation of nuclear plants on European soil, and the radioactive waste they produce.
The pushback is creating tensions with France, Europe’s largest nuclear energy producer, which has forged an unusual alliance with Eastern European countries that want to attract more investment for nuclear power, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
The group is pressing the European Union to classify nuclear energy as a “sustainable” investment, a move that would unlock billions of euros of state aid and investment from pension funds, banks and other investors seeking to put money in environmental causes. Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg and Spain have joined Germany in trying to beat back the initiative in Brussels.
The nuclear industry’s main selling point is a technology involving scaled-down plants, or small modular reactors, that supporters say are safe, cheap and efficient. The argument is that wind and solar power alone won’t be enough to help countries meet the goals outlined at the U.N. climate summit this month in Glasgow, Scotland.
Nearly 200 countries at the conference pledged new efforts to prevent Earth from heating more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with preindustrial levels. Past that threshold, the risk of deadly heat waves and storms, water scarcity and ecosystem collapse escalates immensely, scientists warn.
But countries are falling far short even as they step up investments in wind and solar power, whose output varies with the elements. The reopening of the global economy from the coronavirus pandemic caused a recent spike in energy prices and set European governments scrambling to secure alternative supplies of power.
Nuclear advocates say that experience shows the need for a new generation of nuclear power.
“Nuclear has a really important role to play in getting to net zero for many countries,” said Tom Samson, chief executive of Rolls-Royce SMR, which has been working for six years on a commercial small modular nuclear reactor design — and feels its moment has arrived.
Rolls-Royce, which announced the venture this month, is jumping into a multibillion-dollar market for small nuclear reactors, competing with companies like NuScale, GE Hitachi and TerraPower (which has Bill Gates as its chairman) in the United States; Électricité de France, the French state-owned power company; China’s National Nuclear Corp.; and KEPCO in South Korea.
Samson pitches the venture as a new approach to an industry notorious for delays and cost overruns, and mostly avoided by investors. Rolls-Royce, which makes jet engines and supplies the power plant for the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet, hopes to build 16 of the plants in Britain and generate export sales as well.
The cookie-cutter components will be factory-built and transportable by truck or ship. Initially the plants are expected to cost 2.2 billion pounds ($3 billion) each, compared with an estimated 22.5 billion pound price tag for a full-size plant now under construction in western England.
Drawings of the Rolls-Royce reactor show a compact, futuristic building in a verdant landscape. One reactor would have roughly one-seventh the output of the largest modern nuclear stations and could power 1 million homes.
Labor unions in Britain and Europe back the initiatives, arguing that nuclear plants generate jobs and are preferable to renewable technologies like a solar field, which don’t require many workers to maintain.
Critics say nuclear power is hardly a solution for accelerating the push to net-zero emissions.
For one thing, new nuclear stations, even small ones, will take up to a decade or more to come online, in part because of regulatory requirements, nowhere near fast enough to address a climate emergency. The first Rolls-Royce reactor wouldn’t be in operation until 2031.
And safety questions have lingered after high-profile nuclear accidents, along with unresolved concerns over the storage of radioactive waste.
Croatia is opposing a nuclear reactor project in Slovenia that would deposit some nuclear waste near their border. Germany is objecting to a planned Polish reactor that the German Green party said would most likely contaminate Germany in the event of an accident.
The ability of small nuclear reactors to produce energy quickly or cheaply enough to matter for countries is also unclear, said Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow and a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hibbs, who is based in Germany, noted that 10 such reactors might be required to do the same job as one large modern nuclear power station.
Said Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace in Britain: “It doesn’t solve the problems for society; it solves the problems for the nuclear industry.” He added, “They want to come up with a new concept that does not have the bad image of large nuclear.”
Those pushing for a nuclear revival say such concerns are overblown.
In France, Macron this month announced he would reboot the nation’s atomic program to “live up to” France’s commitments to slash carbon emissions. A recent government-commissioned report concluded France probably can’t achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 with only renewable energy.
His government is expected to authorize state-owned Électricité de France to build six new pressurized reactors and spend billions to help EDF produce small modular nuclear reactors by 2030. The work would be a lifeline for EDF, which is over 40 billion euros ($45 billion) in debt after contending with nuclear plant construction delays and cost overruns.
In Eastern Europe, the rush is already underway.
Poland, Romania and Ukraine, long reliant on coal-burning power plants, are among those signing contracts with U.S. and European companies for small-reactor technology. Poland alone plans to build large nuclear reactors and at least half a dozen small ones at coal sites to produce power and create jobs.
“The ability to bring new electric power generation in a shorter time frame and with a lower total project cost is a primary driver,” said John Kotek, vice president for policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group in Washington.
Still, Europe’s divide over nuclear power remains sharp enough that policymakers may not be ready to support a nuclear buildup program — even if they sorely want to achieve climate change targets.
“It would be impossible to build any consensus policy in Brussels that would strongly support member states’ investment in nuclear power,” said Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment. “It would be left up to the national governments to do that.”
But as investors look at where to deploy trillions of dollars in assets in the shift away from fossil fuels, nuclear power is becoming harder to ignore.
“The general consensus in climate circles is nuclear is a clean energy source,” said Marisa Drew, chief sustainability officer at Credit Suisse. “If someone can deliver something that is economically viable and scalable and truly green, and do it in a safe way, then we have to embrace that.”