For years, nuclear researchers, investors, and advocates have said that small modular reactors (SMRs) will not only be the future of nuclear energy, but they will also be the future of energy, period. As the world rushes to balance the decarbonization imperative with the need to maintain energy security and independence, nuclear energy has emerged as a strong alternative to fossil fuels. SMRs, in particular, have gained a lot of attention for their myriad advantages, most notably their modularity. The field of SMRs is just emerging and models are still under development, leaving the field wide open for competition. And a new, unexpected candidate may be stepping up to take the lead in the SMR vanguard: Romania. For decades, Romania has derived about 20 percent of its energy mix from the nuclear plants that are part of the lasting legacy of the country’s infamous dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was ousted from power and summarily executed in 1989. While Ceausescu is remembered for his cruelty, authoritarianism, and the nefarious cult of personality, his aim to wean Romania off of reliance on Russia by making the nation energy-independent has left the country in a great position for the current energy crisis. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which shares a 400-mile border with Romania, has rekindled the desire to shore up Romanian energy autonomy. To do so, Romania is planning on revitalizing decades-old nuclear plants that never came online, and “leading the way into” SMRs, according to reporting from the New York Times.
As a zero-carbon, proven technology with lots of existing infrastructure around the world, nuclear energy holds major potential for speeding up the green energy transition. However, one of the major problems with this plan is the prohibitive start-up cost of building a new nuclear plant. This is where SMRs come in. These models can be standardized and built off-site in order to cut down on costs and make nuclear power more efficient and scalable, and use passive cooling systems that prevent a meltdown in many accident scenarios.
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If Romania can execute its ambitious plans to ramp up nuclear power capacity and production, it could allow Europe to successfully turn its back on Russian energy for good. “Some see Romania, a nation of 21 million roughly the size of Oregon, as having the potential to become a regional energy powerhouse that could help wean neighbors in eastern and southern Europe from dependence on Moscow,” writes the Times. This move would not only be essential to prop up sanctions against the Kremlin, it is also crucial for maintaining Europe’s energy security and preventing future displays of Putin’s power over the West. the European Union’s enormous reliance on Russian oil and gas has given Russia a dangerous amount of leverage which Putin has wielded mightily in the context of the current conflict.
This, too, may play directly into elevating the importance and acceptance of nuclear power across Europe, especially Germany. “Opposition to all things nuclear was the bedrock of the modern German political psyche. Then came Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Foreign Policy wrote this week. While Germany has remained firm in its convictions that nuclear energy must be phased out entirely, due to concerns over public safety and radioactive waste, it may not be able to maintain this stance as the Kremlin continues to choke off the nation’s access to natural gas – until this conflict, Russia provided about half of Germany’s natural gas. So far, Germany has responded to the squeeze by firing up old coal plants, to the horror of climate advocates. Now top German economists have suggested that Germany delay the closure of the country’s three remaining nuclear plants, which are slated to close at the end of this year. In doing so, Foreign Policy says that the economists have broken a “long-standing cultural and political taboo.”
One thing is clear: against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the usual EU playbook is out the window. Just a year ago, it would be laughable absurdism to posit that Germany would pivot to nuclear energy and Romania would be a linchpin in the continent’s energy security – but here we are. And it could be a lot worse. For all of the concerns associated with nuclear energy – not to mention relying on tax-happy Romania for energy trading – the proliferation of nuclear energy in the European Union, as well as the earnest initiation of the SMR sector, could have sweeping positive implications for the global fight against climate change.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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