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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

Sweden’s parties agree on goal to cut peak power consumption

Sweden's Social Democrat caretaker government has agreed with the incoming Moderates on a goal of cutting peak power consumption by 5 percent as part of an EU scheme.

Sweden's parties agree on goal to cut peak power consumption

Now the election is over, both parties seem willing to consider ways to encourage citizens to reduce power use, an obvious measure to reduce winter power prices that was conspicuously absent from the campaign. 

At the same time, the Moderates are downplaying their election campaign pledge to bring in “high-cost protection” to reimburse citizens for much of the impact of high power costs by the start of November. 

At a meeting of the parliament’s Committee on Industry and Trade, the two parties agreed that both the caretaker Social Democrat government and the incoming Moderate-led government should take action to cut power consumption by between 5 percent and 10 percent. 

“If we succeed in carrying this out on a coordinated EU level, we will be on the way to at the very least halving electricity prices,” Energy minister Khashayar Farmanbar told Sweden’s TT newswire. 

“We stand behind the ambition to reduce consumption,” agreed Carl-Oskar Bohlin, the Moderate Party’s power spokesperson, after a meeting of the committee on Wednesday. 

But he said that meeting the goal would be very much dependent on outside factors, particularly how cold the winter is in Sweden. 

“Then there are questions of how that should happen practically in real terms,” he said. “In Sweden, electricity use is largely dependent on the outside temperature. If we have a mild winter, it will be extremely easy to hit the 5 percent target, if we have a really harsh winter, it might be impossible.”

The Moderates are agreed that the public sector should reduce “unnecessary power consumption”, but have yet to agree on measures that households should take, such as reducing indoor temperatures or turning off the lights. 

At the same time, Bohlin admitted on Wednesday that the high-cost protection that Ulf Kristersson pledged in the campaign by November 1st, may be delayed by the government negotiations. 

“We promised high-cost protection from November 1st, on the condition that a new government was in place rapidly,” he told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. “The problem is that Svenska kraftnät [the company that owns and operates Sweden’s power grid], is working to another schedule, one given by the current government.” 

The outgoing Social Democrat government has given Svenska kraftnät until November 15th to propose a system for high-cost protection. The cash paid back to households and businesses would be taken from the bottle-neck income which the grid operator receives as a result of capacity shortages in the network. 

The outgoing Social Democrats have also changed their rhetoric since the end of the campaign .

On September 9th, two days before the election took place, the Social Democrat government framed a meeting of EU ministers on September 9th as a “breakthrough” in the EU negotiations. 

Farmanbar is now describing it as “a process”. 

“What we can promise right now is that we’re going to work as hard as we can to get a breakthrough,” he said. 

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