As Russia attacks Ukraine, experts weigh European ‘renaissance’ for nuclear

As European leaders condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and unspeakable violence against civilians, many have found themselves in an awkward situation: They need Russian gas to heat buildings and generate electricity. Roughly one-fourth of Europe’s energy comes from natural gas, and as much as 40 percent of it flows from Russia.

To help wean Europe off Russian gas as soon as possible, some experts are now calling for a boost in nuclear power generation. Although nuclear power plants already represent an important energy source for the continent, at least 30 facilities have either recently been decommissioned or are slated to close in the next few years. Keeping them running could provide a reliable and low-emissions alternative to fossil fuels. The idea is controversial — especially because of fears of a meltdown — but advocates have argued that, in the face of a crisis, existing reactors should be kept online and those scheduled for retirement should be allowed to keep producing energy.

“Nuclear provides a lot of energy and it does so without impacting the environment by producing greenhouse gases,” said Adam Stein, director of nuclear energy innovation at the Breakthrough Institute. “Keeping those plants on the grid allows them to offset potential imports of fossil fuels.”

Indeed, this was the argument made last month by the International Energy Agency — an intergovernmental body that analyses the world’s oil supply — in a 10-point plan for European Union leaders. To cut reliance on Russian natural gas this year, the agency said, countries should “maximize generation from existing dispatchable low-emissions sources” — including by completing a reactor that’s being built in Finland and by resuming operations of facilities that were taken offline last year for maintenance and safety checks. 

According to the IEA, these two actions alone could quickly add 20 terawatt-hours of power generation to the European grid in 2022 — about as much energy as five Hoover Dams would produce in a year. Additionally, delaying the closure of five nuclear reactors slated for retirement later this year and in 2023 could reduce the European Union’s gas demand by nearly 1 billion cubic meters per month — slightly more than one-third of Spain’s natural gas consumption in 2020

Part of the reason the idea has gained attention is because of the daunting prospect of scaling up alternative solutions, both fossil and renewable. Shipments of liquefied natural gas are constrained by global supply and a lack of import and export terminals. And at the current pace of wind power installation — about 14 gigawatts per year — it could take decades to build the 370 gigawatts that experts say is needed to supplant the energy provided by Russian gas.
Leaders in at least one country have been convinced by this logic. In mid-March, Belgium announced it would keep its seven nuclear reactors online for another decade, despite previous plans to retire them by 2025. The U.K. has also toyed with the idea of keeping one of its nuclear power plants online past its planned retirement date, but has yet to make a final decision.

A series of pipes shows a natural gas compressor station
The Mallnow compressor station near the German-Polish border mainly receives Russian natural gas. From here, Russian gas flows through the Yamal Gas Link Pipeline into the German natural gas pipeline network.
Patrick Pleul / Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Stein, with the Breakthrough Institute, thinks that more countries should adopt this approach to foster a “nuclear renaissance” — not only keeping existing reactors in operation but bringing back those that have recently been retired. Germany, for example — which has pledged to end all nuclear power generation by the end of this year — lost about 4 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity between 2020 and 2021 as it switched off three of its last six power plants. For context, this is roughly enough energy to power 3 million homes. But the plants are still there and could, in theory, be turned back on. Any obstacles to doing so, such as procuring a workforce or quickly lining up uranium orders — which are typically placed years in advance — are largely “overcomable,” Stein said, and regulators could streamline the process by loosening recertification requirements for facilities that have only recently shut down.

“We know that the operating characteristics of these plants are safe,” he said, and called for “cutting the red tape, as it were, to meet emergency needs.”

The German government, however, didn’t find the nuclear argument quite as compelling. Germany ruled out a nuclear revival earlier this month on the grounds that it would “not help” alleviate the…

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