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‘There’s a lot of posturing’: Europe’s nuclear divide grows as one plant opens and three close

Guardian Jon Henley Europe correspondent, and Kate Connolly in Berlin, 21 Apr 23,

When Europe’s first new nuclear reactor in 16 years came online in Finland, it was hailed by its operator as a “significant addition to clean domestic production” that would “play an important role in the green transition”.

The opening last Sunday of the long-delayed Olkiluoto 3 plant, Europe’s largest, means about 40% of Finland’s electricity demand will soon be met by nuclear power, which the government says will boost energy security and help it achieve its carbon neutrality targets.

Across the Baltic Sea and just hours before the Finnish plant came on stream, Germany was finally pulling the plug on its last three nuclear power plants, shutting down the steaming towers of Isar II, Emsland and Neckarwestheim II reactors late on Saturday.

The environmental group Greenpeace, at the heart of Germany’s long-lived and powerful anti-nuclear movement, organised a party at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. “Finally, nuclear energy belongs to history,” it proclaimed.

There are few clearer illustrations of Europe’s nuclear divide. One faction, led by Germany, argues that the costs are too high and the risks – from reactor accidents and toxic waste – are, as the Green environment minister, Steffi Lemke, put it, “ultimately unmanageable”.

Another, headed by France, argues equally forcefully that nuclear power is a reliable, low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for electricity, and that phasing it out as Europe tries to meet vital green targets is ecologically damaging and economically senseless.

The debate is not new. But with a third of the bloc’s nuclear reactors nearing the end of their original lifespan by 2025, and a legally binding aim of cutting net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, it is becoming increasingly intense.

The energy shock that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, which brought an end to cheap gas imports and led Germany to briefly delay closing its last nuclear plants, has only entrenched the divisions.

“There’s a lot of posturing,” the centrist MEP Pascal Canfin, who chairs the European parliament’s environment committee, said. “Different member states have made very different choices and have very different positions – and interests.

According to Eurostat, 25.4% of the EU’s electricity was nuclear generated in 2021, with 100-odd reactors in 13 member states. France, which has 56 operable nuclear reactors, accounting for just over half of that total.

The divide across the bloc, though, is stark. If France has the highest share of nuclear in its electricity mix (almost 70%), followed by Slovakia (52.4%) and Belgium (50.6%), others hardly touch it. The Netherlands stands at barely 3%…………

Advocates of its “Energiewende” green transition plan note that the 46% share of its electricity generated by renewables is far greater than the share that was produced by nuclear when its phase-out was first announced in 1998.

While its plan, aimed at winning long-term public and industry support, will increase fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions in the short term (coal is due to be phased out by 2038 or earlier), Germany argues it will also stimulate renewables growth.

Immediate energy supply concerns meant public opinion swung against the shutdown last weekend, but polls before the war in Ukraine showed broad support for the principle. Other countries hold similar views.

Several have already phased out nuclear, or plan to do so. Italy shut all its plants in 1990, after a 1987 referendum (in a 2011 plebiscite, held weeks after the Fukushima disaster, 94% of voters rejected a government plan to reintroduce nuclear power).

Belgium was planning to close the last of its seven reactors by 2025, but recently extended the life of the two newest for a further decade, saying they were “critical to our energy security”. Spain aims to phase out its five active plants by 2035.

Other opponents include Portugal, Denmark and Austria – which, along with Luxembourg, is suing the European Commission for classing nuclear energy as a “bridge technology” on the path to net zero, and thus as a “green” investment.

In the French-led pro-nuclear camp, meanwhile, are Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – which this year launched an alliance to boost nuclear cooperation within the bloc.

Far from phasing out nuclear, Romania has doubled production in the last 15 years; Hungary and the Czech Republic have increased theirs by a fifth. Sweden is drafting a law to allow it to build more, while France aims to extend its plants’ life to 50 years and open at least six new ones by 2035.

“Certain countries have made the extreme choice of turning their back on nuclear energy,” President Emmanuel Macron said when unveiling his plans in February. “Not France.” The country launched its nuclear programme after the 1973 oil crisis; a poll last year showed nearly 80% of voters support it, up 20 points from 2016.

The nuclear standoff – at its most tense between France and Germany – has the potential to disrupt a range of vital EU projects, from changes to the bloc’s electricity market to the Green Deal programme supporting industry’s transition to net zero…………………………


April 23, 2023 - Posted by | EUROPE, politics

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