Could nuclear energy reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy?

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The European Union (EU) is working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine. Some commentators have pushed for the expansion of nuclear power, but many experts say the transition would take too long to have an impact in the next few years and would not necessarily reduce reliance on Russia.

How dependent is Europe on Russian energy?

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Many EU countries, but not all, depend on third countries for their energy. Collectively, the bloc imported over 60% of its energy in 2019.

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Much of this comes from Russia: the country supplied 47% of the EU’s imported coal and other solid fuels, 41% of its imported natural gas and 27% of its imported crude oil.

Russia is also a minor source of nuclear energy used by the EU. In 2020, 25% [PDF] of EU countries’ electricity comes from nuclear energy. France produced more than half, and the non-EU countries Russia, Switzerland and Ukraine together produced almost a quarter.

Could nuclear power be an alternative source of energy?

Today, around half of EU countries produce nuclear energy. France has the most operational nuclear reactors, followed by Belgium and Spain. These countries could increase the electricity production of existing reactors quite quickly because most reactors do not normally operate at full capacity. It was one of the solutions proposed by the International Energy Agency to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.

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However, it takes at least a decade to build a new nuclear power plant. “That’s not a solution right now,” says Kai Vetter, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

A draft plan to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russia recently published by the European Commission does not mention nuclear energy. Instead, it offers to partner with other countries to diversify its gas supply; accelerate the deployment of renewable energies, which already generate more than a quarter of the EU’s electricity; and energy conservation, among other alternatives.

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If EU countries decided to switch to nuclear power, it would probably be difficult. Russia is a power in the nuclear energy market: it supplies about 35% of the enriched uranium needed for reactors around the world and it has built many of the reactors that have come on stream in recent years. “Russia has been very aggressive in building nuclear power plants abroad,” says Vetter.

What is the debate?

Russia’s war in Ukraine made it clear that the EU needed to diversify its energy sources, but it has yet to trigger a bloc-wide shift to nuclear power. Instead, the war appears to have led to a hardening of countries’ longstanding positions for and against the expansion of nuclear energy.

Countries favorable to the development of nuclear energy, such as France, Finland and Poland, have said that it is essential for the transition from coal and other fossil fuels. They also point to technological advances, such as small modular reactors, which could be cheaper and easier to bring online than traditional nuclear power plants. The European Commission is expected to decide later this year whether to classify nuclear energy as a clean energy source; if so, it could boost investment in nuclear power across the region, experts say.

Germany, which has opposed the expansion of nuclear power, plans to shut down its three remaining reactors in 2022.
Julian Stratenschulte/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Countries opposed to the expansion of nuclear power, including Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal, have raised concerns about nuclear waste disposal and accident risks. The high costs of building and maintaining nuclear power plants, as well as the increasing accessibility of clean energy sources such as wind and solar, also play a role in their positions.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, Germany accelerated its plans to shut down its reactors. Its three others are to be closed this year. As the war in Ukraine unfolded, officials floated the idea of ​​keeping them open, but ultimately decided against it. (The United Kingdom, which currently has eleven reactors in operation, is considering extending the operation of a nuclear power station by twenty years.)

The war also heightened fears of a nuclear accident. In early March, Russian forces damaged the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine and later took control of it. “The war made everyone wake up and realize that we didn’t design these reactors to be war-proof,” says Allison Macfarlane, director of the School of Public Policy. and Global Affairs from the University of British Columbia, who previously served as chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


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