An article in Time Magazine reported that Europe is looking more favorably on nuclear power plants. The Ukraine war has illustrated Europe’s reliance on Russia for fossil fuels for all its energy needs - coal, oil, and natural gas. It is working on increasing its renewable energy sources – wind and solar – but so far has not been able to completely cut off its reliance Russian fuels.
On April 8, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the U.K. would build up to eight new nuclear plants by 2030 to ensure “we are never again subject to the vagaries of global oil and gas prices” and “can’t be blackmailed by people like Vladimir Putin.”
Collectively, the E.U. imported more than 60% of its energy in 2019. Of that, 47% of the bloc’s imported coal came from Russia, along with 41% of its imported LNG, and 27% of its imported crude oil.
“Nuclear power is an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that can contribute to attaining carbon neutrality and hence help to mitigate climate change,” wrote Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, in a report published in the lead up to November’s COP26 climate talks.
Nuclear power is an issue that splits Europe. Although most E.U. nations are pro-nuclear, at COP26 a group of five—Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal—banded together to urge the European Commission to keep nuclear out of the E.U.’s green finance taxonomy.
Many obstacles remain, of course: Aside from political hesitancy, nuclear plants are expensive, with steep regulatory hurdles. And there is no quick fix: traditional large-scale plants take 10 years to bring online; even the most cutting-edge, next-generation reactors require at least four.
China could be another potential partner for the E.U. Building more new nuclear reactors than any other country—it plans for as many as 150 by 2030, costing in the region of $500 billion—China will soon overtake the U.S. as the operator of the world’s largest nuclear-energy system. It is also experimenting with SMRs, and given its existing engineering prowess and record of slashing costs, is already offering cost-effective alternatives.
Next-gen reactors, called Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), can make a difference, say industry watchers. They’re groundbreaking because, as they are modular, with different numbers of “off the shelf” reactors, they can be combined to tailor for specific needs. Rather than being built bespoke to fit on a specific site, SMR modules get shipped to the location by truck, rail, or barge. This makes them more affordable when economies of scale kick in. They are also theoretically much safer, requiring neither manpower nor electricity to go offline in case of a crisis, while also producing less hazardous waste since they are able to “burn” up more fuel. While traditional reactors are ideal for splitting uranium-235 atoms, the neutrons of “fast” SMRs can also split uranium-238, which makes up over 99% of the enriched uranium that’s fed to reactors. This means less frequent refuelings and less waste.