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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

Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

As the European energy crisis continues, some cities in Italy have chosen to save on electricity by downsizing regular Christmas displays, thus making this year’s festivities a little less flashy.

Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

With less than a month to go until the Christmas holidays, many might be rejoicing at the prospect of finally seeing their cities lit up by dazzling Christmas displays.

But, as the European energy crisis shows no sign of abating and many cities across the boot keep struggling to square their accounts in the face of soaring bills, some residents may be disappointed to know that this year’s festive decorations might differ from the norm.

Milan, Italy’s economic capital, was one of the very first Italian cities to announce it would significantly reduce Christmas displays to save on energy.

READ ALSO: Lights off and home working: Milan’s new energy-saving plan for winter 

After reports emerged in early October that the city would end up spending a whopping €130 million on energy bills alone in 2022, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, was quick to warn residents that Christmas decorations would be “restrained” and operate “for shorter periods of time”.

And, it wasn’t long before Sala made good on his promises. 

Earlier this month, the city’s authorities agreed on putting up decorations and light displays on December 7th (that is over two weeks after the usual date) and taking them down on January 6th instead of late January. 

Christmas lights in the streets of central Milan

Christmas lights in Milan will be switched on on December 7th, that is over two weeks after the usual switch-on date. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Also, while in previous years Milan’s city centre was illuminated overnight, this year’s Christmas lights will be switched on at 4pm and switched off at midnight. 

But, while Milan residents might be slightly dissatisfied with the new arrangements, they sure have little to complain about when compared to Rome residents. 

It’ll be a dark Christmas (literally and, perhaps, even figuratively) for most areas of the Eternal City and not merely because of the current energy crisis. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis: The Italians reviving ‘nonna’s’ traditions to keep costs down

The city’s tender for this year’s Christmas lights contract received no bids before its deadline on October 27th, which means that, in many neighbourhoods, festive decorations will be largely left to the goodwill and financial means of the residents.

So while the popular Piazza di Spagna, Porta Pia and Via Alessandria will light up over the holiday season thanks to private funding, the San Giovanni and Tuscolano neighbourhoods and Via Cola di Rienzo are currently expected to remain au naturel.

Christmas light in a street in Rome

Many areas of the capital, Rome, will be without lights this year due to lack of funding. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Things will generally be better in Venice and Florence, where local authorities have recently chosen to maintain their usual arrangements, the only exception being the replacement of regular lights with energy-efficient, LED ones. 

So, while the lighting might be a little softer and displays might not be as remarkable as in previous years, both cities should be able to deal with late-December energy bills more comfortably than they would have had to do otherwise.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Italy has avoided a huge hike in gas prices – for now 

Having said that, not all Italian cities have decided to resize their Christmas offerings on the back of eye-watering electricity prices. 

Naples, which has long been known for the extravagance of its Christmas and New Year celebrations, has seemingly chosen to turn a blind eye to the energy crisis and will allocate as much as €1.5 million (that’s €150,000 to each one of the ten local municipalities) to this year’s displays.

Unsurprisingly, the comune’s decision has been drawing widespread criticism, with many local political figures pointing out that part, if not most, of the above-mentioned amount should have been spent elsewhere, perhaps in the form of a one-off ‘Christmas bonus’ for struggling households and businesses.

The available money should have been used to “turn off the crisis and light up people’s hearts”, city councillors Antonio Culiers and Francesco Flores said in a joint statement earlier this month.

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