Can Europe trade Russian energy for nuclear?

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As the world’s eyes were on Europe during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy became a big topic of conversation. About a quarter of Europe’s oil and 40% of its natural gas come from Russia. The Russian army has also seized the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, which is the largest in Europe.

European countries are drawing up plans to transform their energy networks as their long-standing reliance on fossil fuels becomes unsustainable – escalating decarbonisation efforts are already underway. The European Union has announced its intention to cut Russian gas imports by nearly two-thirds by the end of this year. But when it comes to nuclear power’s role in the transition, nations remain divided on what role it should or shouldn’t play. Around a quarter of Europe’s energy currently comes from nuclear energy.

Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear engineering at MIT, says the volatile power source has long been a point of contention in Europe. Views on nuclear power, he adds, vary from government to government.

“It’s a checkerboard situation, in that there are countries that are clearly negative on nuclear, others that are very positive, and also newcomer countries that are looking to develop a nuclear program for first time,” Buongiorno said.

As for countries that are against nuclear power, Buongiorno notes that Germany is leading the way. The country decided to phase out its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, and its three remaining plants will be closed by the end of the year. The country is increasing its renewable energy capacity with new solar and wind installations to try to compensate for the loss of nuclear energy.

“They remain convinced that they don’t want nuclear,” Buongiorno said.

Spain intends to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2035. In 2017, Swiss citizens voted in favor of a referendum to start shutting down their plants. Countries like Austria, Denmark and Portugal are opposed to nuclear power but have no power plants. Security is a major concern at all levels for these nations.

As far as pro-nuclear countries go, the UK is a big proponent of nuclear power. The country has one nuclear power plant under construction and plans to build several new ones in the coming years. The Netherlands plans to build at least two more nuclear power plants, and France joins them with the goal of setting up 15 new plants by 2050. Finland recently completed a large nuclear power plant which will soon be operational. Meanwhile, Buongiorno says most of Eastern Europe is also pro-nuclear.

“Either they already have it and want more, or they don’t have it and they want it,” he explains. Almost a quarter of Ukraine’s energy comes from nuclear power, for example.

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Buongiorno says nuclear power will be an important part of Europe’s transition away from Russian oil and gas – and the transition away from fossil fuels in general. However, there are a few issues. As in the United States, the construction of nuclear power plants has encountered significant problems. New projects regularly experience long delays and significant cost overruns – only one has been completed in the states in the past few years.

“The industry must show that it can deliver new nuclear power plants on time and within budget. For the past 10 years, they haven’t been able to do that,” says Buongiorno. He says many factories end up costing around three times what was promised and taking over a decade to complete.

Buongiorno says one of the main problems is that many companies have focused on maintenance, not new construction. Most European factories, including Zaporizhzhia, were completed in the late 1980s. He adds that these companies do not have good project management practices and there could be a supply chain problem. due to the long pause in the construction of new reactors.

“The industry definitely has to change for this to happen,” Buongiorno says.

Penn State climatologist Michael Mann says he is “skeptical” of Europe’s emphasis on nuclear power for its energy transition. He says existing plants should continue to operate, but building more nuclear power will not solve the continent’s problems in an acceptable time frame.

“It’s not plausible that new nuclear builds… could possibly accommodate the near-term energy demand caused by the current crisis,” Mann says.

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One of the ways for Europe to increase nuclear energy without such high costs and delays would be to use small modular nuclear reactors. As their name suggests, these reactors would be up to 90% smaller than traditional reactors, could be moved if necessary, and should be easier and cheaper to build overall. However, the designs are all still in the development phase, so they are not yet ready to be deployed. In the United States, only the company called NuScale has received design approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

As many countries wish, it is clear that it will not be easy for Europe to exit Russian oil and gas so quickly, Buongiorno said. This will be a process that will require time and large investments.

“Nobody can snap their fingers and replace 40% of their gasoline overnight,” says Buongiorno. Energy transitions are exactly that, a transition, and this is particularly true with nuclear power.


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