Could Nuclear Power Cut Europe’s Dependence on Russian Energy?

In Brief

Could Nuclear Power Cut Europe’s Dependence on Russian Energy?

The war in Ukraine has set off a rush in Europe to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas. Some are calling for an expansion of nuclear power.

The European Union (EU) is working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine. Some commentators have pushed for the expansion of nuclear power, but many experts say the transition would take too long to have an impact in the next few years and would not necessarily reduce reliance on Russia. 

How much does Europe depend on Russian energy?

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Many EU countries, though not all, rely on outside countries for their energy. Collectively, the bloc imported more than 60 percent of its energy in 2019. 

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Much of that comes from Russia: the country provided 47 percent of the EU’s imported coal and other solid fuels, 41 percent of its imported natural gas, and 27 percent of its imported crude oil.

Russia is also a minor source of nuclear energy used by the EU. In 2020, 25 percent [PDF] of EU countries’ electricity came from nuclear power. France produced more than half of that, and non-EU countries Russia, Switzerland, and Ukraine together produced nearly a quarter.

Could nuclear power be an alternative energy source?

Today, about half of EU countries generate nuclear power. France has the most operable nuclear reactors, followed by Belgium and Spain. These countries could boost the power generation of existing reactors relatively quickly because most reactors do not normally run at full capacity. This was one of the solutions proposed by the International Energy Agency to reduce European reliance on Russian natural gas. 

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However, it takes at least a decade to build a new nuclear power plant. “It’s not a solution for now,” says Kai Vetter, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. 

A draft plan for reducing EU dependence on Russia recently released by the European Commission does not mention nuclear energy. Instead, it proposes partnering with other countries to diversify its gas supply; accelerating the rollout of renewables, which already generate more than a quarter of the EU’s electricity; and conserving energy, among other alternatives.

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If EU countries decided to make the switch to nuclear energy, it would likely be difficult. Russia is a powerhouse in the nuclear power market: it provides about 35 percent of the enriched uranium needed for reactors worldwide and it constructed many of the reactors that have come online in recent years. “Russia has been very aggressive in building nuclear power plants abroad,” Vetter says.

What’s the debate?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has made clear that the EU should diversify its energy sources, but it has not yet sparked a bloc-wide turn toward nuclear power. Instead, the war appears to have led to a hardening of countries’ long-held positions for and against expanding nuclear power.

Countries in favor of developing nuclear power, such as France, Finland, and Poland, have said it is critical for the transition away from coal and other fossil fuels. They also point to technological advancements, such as small modular reactors, that could be cheaper and easier to bring online than traditional nuclear power plants. The European Commission is set to decide later this year whether to classify nuclear power as a clean energy source; if it does, that could boost investment in nuclear power across the region, experts say.

Steam billows from a nuclear power plant in Germany.
Germany, which has opposed expanding nuclear power, plans to shut down its three remaining reactors in 2022. Julian Stratenschulte/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Countries against expanding nuclear power, including Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, and Portugal, have raised concerns about the disposal of nuclear waste and the risks of an accident. The high costs of constructing and maintaining nuclear power plants, as well as the increasing affordability of clean energy sources such as wind and solar, also factor into their positions.

After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Germany sped up plans to shut down its reactors. Its remaining three are scheduled to be shut down this year. As the war in Ukraine unfolded, officials floated the idea of keeping them open but eventually decided against it. (The United Kingdom, which currently has eleven operable reactors, is considering extending the operation of one nuclear power plant by twenty years.)

The war has also heightened concerns of a nuclear accident. In early March, Russian forces damaged the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine and later took control of it. “The war has made everybody wake up and realize we didn’t design these reactors to be war-proof,” says Allison Macfarlane, director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs who previously served as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

Will Merrow created the map for this In Brief.

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