Attempts this week by the EU to ban imports of Russian oil, blocked on Monday by Hungary, have highlighted how difficult it is to turn off Russian fossil fuel pipelines. But they also reflect a wider problem with the EU’s energy strategy. Nuclear power is the elephant in the room when it comes to collective moves on energy by the EU27.
Hungary has four nuclear reactors that were installed in the 1980s by the Soviets, and whose fuel is produced by Russia’s Rosatom. In 2014, Hungary signed a deal with Vladimir Putin to upgrade and finance two new nuclear reactors. Nuclear power provides half of Hungary’s electricity, and 14 per cent of its energy overall. With so much at stake, we can understand Hungary’s deep reluctance to stop Russian oil imports.
People don’t generally like to consider the part that nuclear will need to play in the energy future of Europe. Particularly for the older generation, nuclear power is a legacy of Cold War military technology which inspires fear and loathing. Germans who were young in the 1980s remember chaining themselves to trains to stop nuclear waste being taken from reactors to waste facilities. Spaniards who were young in the 1960s remember the Palomares disaster, when plane carrying hydrogen bombs broke apart in Spanish air space.
On Wednesday, the European Commission published its REPowerEU plan, a €300bn package aimed at weaning the bloc off Russian fossil fuels before 2030. Its focus was on fossil fuels and renewables – nuclear was left out of the four pillars that it put forward. Conversely, the UK, in its energy strategy published earlier this year, surprised many by pledging to build more nuclear reactors.
The UK may have recognised what the EU has not, that without the use of nuclear in the medium term it is hard to achieve true energy independence. The EU can buy its fossil fuel from the US, the Middle East and South America rather than Russia. But it will not be able to transition in this way to a situation in which Europe is self-sufficient for its energy needs. The only energy resources that Europe has internally are renewables and nuclear. And it won’t be able to make the transition to 100 per cent renewable energy without nuclear.
Currently only around 17 per cent of the total energy that comes into Europe is renewable. This is mainly because we have not yet been able to switch the transport sector to run on electricity. Without nuclear, we won’t be able to generate enough electricity to power our cars and replace gas boilers with electric equivalents on the massive scale required. If you want to electrify massively, you need access to massive electricity production.
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So why is the EU not fully discussing nuclear as part of the medium-term route to energy independence? Because there is no topic in the energy debate which carries a greater ideological charge. And because ideological debates about nuclear power vary so widely among countries.
For example, in Spain the perception of nuclear power is that it was imposed on the people by the Franco dictatorship. Spain’s current policy is to let its seven nuclear reactors fall into obsolescence in 2035. In France, however, nuclear is a subject that stirs patriotic pride. Charles De Gaulle promised in the post-war years that France would never again be invaded, and to achieve this goal built both a nuclear arsenal and nuclear reactors. Italy and Austria have banned nuclear power by law. But Finland, arguably the EU country with most reason to fear Russia, is building its own high-level nuclear waste facility.
If we want energy self-sufficiency as a bloc, we will need to use nuclear until we’ve built enough renewables and hydrogen infrastructure to run Europe on green power alone. A unified nuclear strategy for Europe is probably impossible. But when considering how to fill in the gaps left by Russian oil and gas, the EU institutions need to properly factor in nuclear capacity. This means relying on France, with its 54 nuclear reactors and energy surplus, as a key supplier. And, unpopular though this may be with national green parties, it means encouraging countries to renew and maintain their nuclear capability, which is currently on the decline across the continent.
Spain will need not to let its reactors fall into obsolescence. Germany will probably need to restart the reactors that it closed down, but left functional, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
For Europe to reduce its dependence on Russia it will also need to look beyond the border of the EU. It will need some Norwegian fossil fuels and renewables, and it may well end up importing some renewables from the UK, which is ahead of the game in offshore wind power and may be able to build up a surplus.
In Europe’s debate over the future of its energy needs, nuclear must stop being ignored.
Jordi Bruno is the Spain-based business development director of nuclear and mining at UK-based environmental business RSK.