Can Europe survive without Russian oil? Nuclear energy may be the key.

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After a 20-year political battle, Belgium was set to shut down its nuclear power plants in 2025, but war in Ukraine and rising energy prices have forced a reversal – and reignited the debate across Europe on the best path to a safe, low-carbon system. energy future.

Christophe Collignon, mayor of Huy – whose skyline and history is dominated by the Tihange nuclear power plant – said most residents of the medieval town in eastern Belgium welcomed the decision to extend the life of the aging reactor until 2035.

“Sometimes you have to be more pragmatic and less ideological,” said Collignon, who remembers the first factory opening in 1975, adding that everyone in Huy knows someone who works there.

“The question is whether we can keep up with the shutdown schedule? For now, the answer is no,” he said, describing the 2025 deadline as too tight to ensure Belgium’s energy security.

Belgium’s dilemma over how to switch to green and reliable sources of energy is playing out across the European Union (EU), as it scrambles to reach a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 27-nation bloc has also pledged to cut its use of Russian gas – which accounts for around 40% of its supply – by two-thirds this year and end its dependence on Russia “well before 2030”. “

Wednesday’s proposals to ban Russian oil imports could further complicate EU energy security as prices soar.

The twin goals of cutting Russian fossil fuels and reducing emissions are rekindling interest in nuclear power across much of Europe.

“Trying to achieve zero emissions targets in an acceptable time frame and limiting global warming was already hugely ambitious. It’s a costly undertaking,” said Richard Bronze, geopolitics manager at Energy Aspects, a London-based research company.

“But if you have to move away from Russian energy imports in an even shorter timeframe, that makes the whole thing more difficult.”

Renewable energy

Belgium’s efforts to wean itself off nuclear power date back to 2003, when it voted to phase out nuclear power in a political victory for the Greens party, after coming to power for the first times in a coalition government.

Twelve governments later, the goal has still not been achieved.

Ironically, it was Tinne Van der Straeten of the Green Party who, as energy minister, announced in March the decision to delay Belgium’s nuclear exit.

“The world had changed,” said Green Party spokesman Baptiste Erpicum. “Circumstances forced us to change the route but not the destination.”

Nearly 40% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear, the sixth highest rate in the EU, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Belgium has yet to find reliable alternatives, despite major investments in offshore wind farms, and the phasing out of nuclear power is expected to increase its use of gas, according to the International Energy Agency based in Paris.

Chimneys of the Doel nuclear power plant in Antwerp, Belgium | BLOOMBERG

Erpicum said the Green Party is committed to phasing out nuclear power, especially in light of radiation fears raised by Russia’s capture of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, in March.

“Radioactive waste represents a real danger, without even taking into consideration the risk of a nuclear accident,” he said.

“Investment in nuclear is diverting funding from only truly green energy,” he said, adding that the government had earmarked 1.2 billion euros (about 164.7 billion yen) for its goal of make Belgium 100% reliable in terms of renewable energies by 2050.

“It’s a historic sum… and will gradually make us less dependent on fossil fuels, which are often the source of conflicts or wars.

Nuclear solution?

Europe is divided on nuclear power, with some vowing to avoid it after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and the Chernobyl reactor explosion in 1986.

Nuclear power generation has fallen across Europe since 2004, with Lithuania closing its facilities in 2009 and significant declines in Germany, Sweden and Belgium, according to EU data.

Germany – Europe’s biggest economy and a powerful political player – is set to shut down its last nuclear power plants this year.

On the other hand, France, which already derives 70% of its electricity from nuclear power according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is accelerating its production, as are Romania, Hungary and the Netherlands.

“In terms of climate change, nuclear clearly provides a solution,” said Jessica Johnson, spokeswoman for Foratom, an association of the European nuclear industry.

“It’s low-carbon and can ramp up and down as needed,” she said, adding that it’s more reliable than renewables because it doesn’t need wind to blow or the sun. to shine.

A Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Energodar, Ukraine, on May 1.  |  AFP-JIJI
A Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Energodar, Ukraine, on May 1. | AFP-JIJI

French President Emmanuel Macron, who produced 52% of the EU’s nuclear power in 2020, said in November he would build new nuclear reactors to meet global warming targets, secure energy independence and curb soaring energy prices.

Meanwhile, new small modular reactors, which are faster and cheaper to build than traditional nuclear power plants, are attracting interest in Romania, Poland and Britain.

Attract investors

With many EU countries falling behind on carbon emissions targets, nuclear is seen as a stopgap measure as investment in renewables increases, including improved storage technologies, Catalina said. Spataru, energy policy expert.

“It could be a kind of backup energy…until we really move into renewables,” said Spataru, director of University College London Energy Institute.

Moving away from fossil fuels is expensive and slow, she said, citing France’s Flamanville 3 nuclear project, which is expected to cost 12.7 billion euros ($13.4 billion), more than quadrupling from the first calculation of 2004.

“We’ve seen subsidies over the years for fossil fuels. So if we could see the same kind of subsidies for (renewable) storage, we would definitely see a different picture 20 years from now,” he said. she declared.

So, in which direction will Europe go?

One answer may lie in new investment rules proposed by the European Commission, which would classify certain gas and nuclear power projects as green, making them more attractive to investors.

If the rules are approved in July, they will come into force in 2023. Some EU lawmakers have already said they will oppose the so-called taxonomy regulation.

Bronze of Energy Aspects predicts lingering disagreement across Europe over nuclear power.

“Countries that have significant nuclear experience will be where it will stay for the long term…and there are others where it’s an unacceptable option,” he said.

“This very differentiated approach at the national level is likely to continue.”

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