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ENERGY

Energy crisis pushes nuclear comeback in Europe

As the costs of importing energy soars in Europe and beyond and climate crises wreak havoc, interest in nuclear power is on the rise with nations scrambling to find alternative sources.

technicians stand outside the building housing the switched off Unit 1 reactor at the nuclear power plant of Civaux, central France.
In this file photo from 2016, technicians stand outside the building housing the switched off Unit 1 reactor at the nuclear power plant of Civaux, central France. France is one of the countries planning to relaunch nuclear construction amid the energy crisis. Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

Investment in nuclear power declined after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, as fears over its safety increased and governments ran scared.

But following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the subsequent squeeze on energy supplies and Europe’s push to wean itself off of Russian oil and gas, the tide is now turning back in favour of nuclear.

Governments face difficult decisions with rising gas and electricity bills and scarce resources threatening to cause widespread suffering this winter.

Some experts argue that nuclear power should not be considered an option, but others argue that, in the face of so many crises, it must remain part of the world’s energy mix.

This has led some countries that were looking to move away from nuclear to discard those plans — at least in the short term.

Less than a month after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Belgium delayed by a decade its plan to scrap nuclear energy in 2025.

And even in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, sticking with nuclear is no longer a taboo subject as the energy crisis rekindles debate on shutting down the country’s last three nuclear power plants by the end of 2022.

Berlin said last month it would await the outcome of a “stress test” of the national electric grid before deciding whether to stick with the phaseout.

Another of the countries reconsidering nuclear energy is Japan, where the 2011 accident led to the suspension of many nuclear reactors over safety fears.

And in Japan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week called for a push to revive the country’s nuclear power industry, and build new atomic plants.

While nuclear power, currently used in 32 countries, supplies 10 percent of the world’s electricity production, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised its projections in September for the first time since the 2011 disaster.

The IAEA now expects installed capacity to double by 2050 under the most favourable scenario.

Climate reasoning

But Greenpeace Germany’s climate and energy expert, Gerald Neubauer, said turning to nuclear was “not a solution to the energy crisis”.

He said nuclear energy would have “limited” efficacy in replacing Russian gas since it is mainly “used for heating” in Germany not for electricity production.

“The reactors would only save the gas used for electricity, it would save less than one percent of the gas consumption,” he added.

But according to Nicolas Berghmans, energy and climate expert at the IDDRI think tank, extending the use of nuclear “can help”.

“Europe is in a very different energy situation, with several overlapping crises: the problem of Russian gas supply, the drought that has reduced the capacity of dams, the French nuclear plants’ weak output… so all the levers
matter,” he said.

The pro-nuclear lobby says it is one of the world’s best options to avoid climate change since it does not directly emit carbon dioxide.

In fact, nuclear energy accounts for a bigger share of the world power mix in most of the scenarios put forward by the IPCC, the UN’s climate experts, to alleviate the global climate crisis.

Divided opinions

As the need for electricity booms, several countries have expressed a desire to develop nuclear infrastructure including China — which already has the largest number of reactors — as well as the Czech Republic, India and
Poland since nuclear offers an alternative to coal.

Likewise, Britain, France and the Netherlands have similar ambitions, and even the United States where President Joe Biden’s investment plan encourages the sector’s development.

The IPCC experts recognise that the deployment of nuclear energy “can be constrained by societal preferences” since the subject still divides opinion because of the risk of catastrophic accidents and the still unresolved issue
of how to dispose of radioactive waste safely.

Some countries, like New Zealand, oppose nuclear, and the issue has also been hotly debated in the European Union over whether it should be listed as a “green” energy.

READ ALSO: EU moves to label nuclear and gas energy as ‘green’

Last month, the European Parliament approved a contentious proposal giving a sustainable finance label to investments in gas and nuclear power.

Other issues remain over nuclear infrastructure including the ability to build new reactors with costs and delays tightly controlled.

Berghmans pointed to “long construction delays”.

“We’re talking about medium-term solutions, which won’t resolve tensions in the market”, as they will arrive too late to address climate crises, he said, but suggested focusing on the “dynamic” renewable energies sector that can be immediately helpful.

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ENERGY

How Austria plans to secure the food supply in the event of a blackout

The energy crisis and war in Ukraine have raised fears of blackouts in Austria this winter. While the risk is low, there are now plans in place to distribute food if the worst happens.

How Austria plans to secure the food supply in the event of a blackout

Grocery retailers in Austria have agreed on an emergency plan to secure the food supply to the nation in the event of blackout.

The agreement followed a meeting with Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens) and Agriculture Minister Norbert Totschnig (ÖVP) on Tuesday (November 29), reports ORF.

FOR MEMBERS: Energy crisis: What to do in case of a power outage in Austria

A statement released following the meeting said: “As a system-critical infrastructure, the domestic food retail trade has a social responsibility to be prepared for emergencies and to be able to ensure the basic supply of the population even in the event of a blackout.”

What is the emergency plan for Austria’s food supply?

If Austria is hit by a widespread blackout, all grocery stores will close to protect the supplies.

On the second day, supermarkets will open from 10am to 3pm, but staff will hand out bags of fresh food at the front of the shops and customers will not be allowed to enter.

This will take place at Spar, Interspar, Maximarkt, Billa, Penny, ADEG, Sutterlüty, Hofer, Lidl, Nah- und Frisch, Unimarkt and M-Preis stores.

The bags will contain ready-made food, water, non-perishable bread and canned goods. Convenience products and candles will be sold for cash. Baby items and hygiene products will be available on request.

If a blackout extends to a third day, only dry food will be distributed.

Additionally, all Austrian households are advised to have a supply of food to last for 14 days, as well as around €100 in cash per family member.

READ MORE: Who to call and what to say in an emergency in Austria

How secure is Austria’s energy supply?

Austria is a country with a stable electricity supply – with most of the power coming from hydroelectric or wind power farms.

In 2020, hydropower accounted for 55 to 67 percent of the electricity generated in the Alpine country. The leading electricity companies operate around 130 hydropower plants, especially taking advantage of its mountainous location.

According to the country’s Climate and Energy Ministry, wind power accounted for 10 percent, while solar 4 percent. In total, around 80 percent of Austria’s electricity comes from renewables.

Vienna has one of the most secure supplies worldwide, according to the independent regulatory authority E-Control. Moreover, the current figures on the subject of security of supply show that the Viennese were only affected by a power failure for just under 18 minutes a year – an improvement from 2021.

The capital is also equipped with “black start-capable power plants”, which can start up independently without outside help – thus ensuring supply even if a prolonged widespread power blackout should occur in Europe.

The situation in the rest of the country is similar. But Viennese authorities have asked the federal government to enter into talks with the federal states to develop a national emergency plan. 

Emergency preparation guidelines for the general population include keeping a flashlight with working batteries in case of a power grid malfunction, keeping a battery-powered radio in your home and even having non-perishable food and potable water in the household.

READ ALSO: Reader question: What are the chances of blackouts in Austria this winter?

Austria’s energy emergency system

Since March, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Austria has been at level 1 (the early warning level) of the alert system related to energy consumption.

However, due to the aggravated situation surrounding gas deliveries, the increasing number of cases of suspected sabotage of gas pipelines to Europe and the current developments relating to the Ukraine war, an alert level (level 2) could be expected for Austria.

Level 2 is declared if the gas situation deteriorates. At this stage, businesses are encouraged to use alternatives to natural gas whenever possible. 

Level 3 – the emergency level – is activated when gas can no longer be supplied and the current demand can no longer be met. Measures for industry, such as substituting natural gas with other energies as energy control measures, are to be put in place. 

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