Several countries around the world appear to have suddenly welcomed nuclear power into the clean energy mix, particularly in response to global gas shortages and rising oil prices. But this apparent renaissance of nuclear energy is not being seen everywhere, with many countries remaining skeptical about the technology, unwilling to accept nuclear as the answer to the world’s energy problems. This divide, particularly seen in Europe, could have a major impact on the development of the nuclear power plant pipeline across the region, as some states reject plans for raising the EU’s nuclear energy capacity.
After decades of moving away from nuclear power, largely due to safety concerns following three world-renowned nuclear disasters, some major powers have put nuclear energy back on the agenda as they race to secure their energy security and transition away from fossil fuels. The U.S. and U.K. are two countries in which the governments are offering high levels of funding and political backing for new nuclear projects to support a green transition. In the U.S., the nuclear energy output has plateaued since the 1980s, providing around 19 percent of the country’s electricity at present. But a reconsideration of the safety risk involved with nuclear operations vis a vis the current climate situation has made the U.S. more open to new nuclear projects, with President Biden including funding for nuclear projects in his Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Meanwhile, in the U.K. the government purchased a 20 percent stake in the Sizewell C nuclear plant in Suffolk for $100 million in June. And EDF’s Hinkley Point C is expected to be up and running by 2027, at a cost of between $30 and $31.5 billion. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson also outlined plans for the development of eight nuclear reactors by the end of the decade earlier this year.
Hungary is remaining strongly committed to a planned nuclear project with Russia. The Paks 2 project is set to be financed by Russia, with a $10.6 billion loan. It follows the Paks 1 nuclear power station, around an hour south of Budapest, that was constructed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. With its lifecycle coming to an end in the 2030s, Prime Minister Viktor Orban signed a deal with Vladimir Putin in 2014 to construct two new 1,200 MW reactors next to the old ones. Ground-clearing work started in August after several years of delays. The plant was originally expected to come online in 2026, but this is becoming increasingly unlikely, especially due to the war in Ukraine. Finland has already abandoned a Russian-built nuclear plant on the Hanhikivi peninsula midway through its construction because of the war. And, unsurprisingly, several other European powers oppose Hungary’s close relations with Russia, encouraging Orban to cut ties with Putin.
While many are concerned about Hungary’s nuclear project because of Russia’s involvement, some other European countries are opposed to bringing new nuclear projects online altogether. Slovakia has announced plans to shift its reliance on nuclear energy in its plans for the Mochovce power plant. Built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a new nuclear reactor is currently being prepared to launch in 2023, offering 471 MW of power. If all goes as planned, it will cover 13 percent of Slovakia’s electricity needs, making the country self-sufficient. But neighboring Austria is staunchly opposed to the development due to the high costs involved – both in terms of money and radioactive waste. Austria also worries that Slovakia will rely on Russia for its uranium to run operations, with around one-fifth of the EU’s uranium coming from Russia. Public opinion on nuclear power is greatly divided, with 60 percent of Slovakians believing nuclear power is safe, while 70 percent of Austrians think the opposite.
At present, 13 of the EU’s 27 member states generate nuclear power, while several others are not ready to welcome nuclear to the energy mix despite the current energy crisis. While Germany has delayed the planned phasing out of its nuclear projects, and other European countries are bringing new nuclear reactors online, some believe there is no renaissance for nuclear power. Despite the Russia-Ukraine war creating a regional energy crisis, governments have generally taken little action to shift their existing policies on nuclear plans, suggesting that a move to nuclear may be exaggerated.
Nicolas Berghmans, an energy and climate expert at the France-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), explained “We’re not talking about a nuclear renaissance, as such… but maybe more of a change of tide.” He added, “A real nuclear renaissance would be if Europe decides to invest in more nuclear power plants.” Meanwhile, Said Mark Hibbs, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested “I don’t see a major watershed from what’s happening in Ukraine… Instead, the situation has reinforced some trends among countries already bought into nuclear energy, while slowing some opponents’ phase-outs of the technology.”
While some believe there is a renaissance of nuclear energy taking place, others are less certain. The recent energy crisis has drawn greater attention to nuclear power, with some major powers accelerating existing plans for nuclear plants or showing openness to diversifying their energy mix further through nuclear projects. However, the divide between those for and against nuclear power remains strong and will likely shape the development of many of these projects, as regional pressures could prevent many new reactors from coming online.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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