There are many valid arguments against specific nuclear projects – including cost efficiency, safety, and environmental footprint. But one should also be honest in comparing the trade-offs with competing technologies, writes Pieter Cleppe.
Pieter Cleppe is a non-resident fellow at the Property Rights Alliance, an affiliate of Americans for Tax Reform. ATR is an advocacy organisation dedicated to the protection of innovation, intellectual property rights, and physical property rights around the world.
Plans by French company EDF to construct a new large nuclear power station on England’s east coast have sparked new life into Britain’s debate about nuclear energy. Even if the facility will provide an estimated 7% of the UK’s electricity, local councils and activists have already started to organise in opposition, with one campaign group arguing the project would “escalate anxiety at a time when people have got a huge amount of others things to be anxious about”.
Also in other countries, these kinds of arguments are typical for the debate about nuclear energy, where many opponents of nuclear power feel little obligation to put forward facts and serious arguments to make their case.
The overall attitude towards nuclear energy has been compounded by pop culture, notable HBO’s mini-series “Chernobyl,” which contains bogus claims about the 1986 disaster; for example, the claim of “a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus”, something which has been firmly contradicted by the World Health Organisation. “Chernobyl” creator Craig Mazin did state “the lesson of ‘Chernobyl’ isn’t that modern nuclear power is dangerous. (…) the lesson is that lying, arrogance, and suppression of criticism are dangerous”. The question, though, is whether grossly exaggerating the damage of the disaster delivers that message.
Of course, there are valid arguments against specific projects. One could question their cost efficiency, specific safety measures, or environmental footprint.
One should also, however, be honest in comparing the trade-offs with competing technologies. Nuclear beats coal and gas hands-down when looking at its carbon footprint. When it comes to renewable energy, there is the well-documented issue of renewables’ notorious lack of reliability, but the issues don’t stop there. Producing solar panels and wind turbines requires hazardous materials, and managing the resulting waste is a big problem. That’s not to say these energy sources should be completely absent, but a more balanced assessment would properly deal with the many downsides of nuclear energy’s competitors.
It’s not just Western Europe that demonstrates an emotional and sometimes irrational approach to nuclear energy. The Lithuanian government has been fiercely campaigning against the Astravets nuclear power project in neighbouring Belarus after a public referendum scuttled Vilnius’ own nuclear plans in 2012. Lithuania even organised a dramatic “four-day ‘national emergency nuclear drill’”, while pressuring the EU to weigh in against the project. Nevertheless, the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG), a body composed of top nuclear policy officials from EU member states, has given the Astravets nuclear power station an “overall positive” review, while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was also positive in its assessment.
Concerns should never be dismissed out-of-hand, but the Belarussian nuclear site will run third-generation pressurised-water reactors (PWR), markedly different from the reactor technologies used in Chernobyl or Fukushima. PWR reactors have been in operation for over 60 years, for example in France, which derives all of its nuclear capacity from PWR, where it has been functioning in a safe way.
The latest generation of PWRs are equipped with safety measures specifically addressing the factors that caused those previous disasters. The same reactors used in Belarus will also be installed in Finland, where they are kicking up much less of a fuss. Even Lithuania’s ambassador-at-large on the Astravets project, Darius Degutis, has admitted the technology “is sound and up to scratch as their reactors are certified and used in EU countries like Finland and Hungary”. Despite this, Lithuania wants to block electricity imports from Belarus to the Baltics from the moment the nuclear plant is active.
Nevertheless, the debate about nuclear is changing and a more positive outlook is emerging. Another EU member state that has experienced Communist oppression, Poland – which is also heavily dependent on coal, which kills tens of thousands of Europeans every year – is much more positive about nuclear energy.
The Polish government is planning to build six nuclear reactors, and together with the Czech Republic, it is advocating for nuclear energy at the EU policy level.
Also in Germany, which decided to phase out nuclear energy completely after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, minds are now changing. In December, MP Joachim Pfeiffer, the energy spokesman of Angela Merkel’s governing CDU, declared it had been “wrong to ditch nuclear power” for Germany.
The evidence against the policy has become obvious: in the 2019 Energy Transition Index, Germany ranked at the 113th place out of a total of 115 countries in terms of high electricity prices, and 96th in terms of electricity generation from coal. Not exactly cause for celebration among either hard-pressed consumers or climate activists to cheer for.
In Belgium, a big U-turn is likewise expected regarding the country’s 1999 decision to shut off its ageing nuclear plants, which would have made it one of the only countries to simultaneously lack both nuclear and coal baseloads. In 2018, nuclear still generated 39% of the country’s electricity. Experts have warned against energy blackouts, which would be concerning for the country’s vibrant chemical sector, which just saw a massive British investment in the port of Antwerp, where UK chemical firm INEOS has decided to build a multi-billion Euro project for an ethane gas cracker – the first of its kind in decades.
Behind the scenes, most political parties in the country’s fragmented political landscape now realise there simply aren’t any sustainable alternatives in terms of energy supply. Relying on France or other neighbours for its energy may also not have become a more attractive experience, given how the COVID-19 crisis has left every European country to its own devices.
Furthermore, a hopeful change on nuclear is now also visible at the EU level. In December, EU leaders agreed nuclear energy will be part of the EU’s solution to making its economy carbon-neutral by 2050. Importantly, this was also supported by the likes of Germany, Austria and Luxembourg. France, which relies on nuclear power for 60% of its electricity, was always in favour anyway.
Even in the media, it’s no longer doomsday all over. Michael Moore’s new documentary exposing the ills of solar panels and windmills may open many eyes on the left, even if his documentaries have not always been as scientifically solid.
It’s also curious to witness campaigns by so-called “nuclear pride” activists, who have been campaigning in cities like Brussels or Paris for nuclear energy, because of its low carbon foot print.
The change of heart in the nuclear debate is welcome. Proponents of nuclear energy should open up themselves and not oppose shutting down old nuclear power plants. The main thing is to not rule out constructing new ones, whether in the UK or Belarus. Innovation can tackle any of the challenges nuclear power may present: Microsoft founder Bill Gates has put forward a design for a plant which operates at a lower temperature than conventional reactors and is less vulnerable to a Chernobyl-type accident, and while challenging, solutions are being developed for secure nuclear waste storage. We may even see nuclear waste used to generate even more clean power.
Then all the innovation in the world will amount to nothing if we keep letting fear be our advisor. Thankfully, a change in attitude about nuclear is visible, but old fears continue to linger.