Posted: 23.04.2024 17:38:00

Nuclear question on the table

What stands behind the European Union’s return to the widespread use of nuclear energy

After the Second World War, nuclear energy developed at an accelerated pace. At some point, Germany began to crowd out the United States and Great Britain in this area. In order to bring down the pace of development of the German economy, the United States persistently started to push forward the green agenda. Although wind turbines and solar panels are beautiful and environmentally friendly, they are not profitable from the cost perspective of electricity and final products of mechanical engineering and petrochemical industry. This is how European products began to lose their competitive advantages in the world. 

                                   The President of Belarus,
                               Aleksandr Lukashenko,

“Thanks to the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant, we have replaced gas consumption and have the opportunity to actively develop the electrical industry. Electric transport is a key component here. It is necessary to actively expand the production of traction electric motors and components for unmanned vehicles.” 

From the Address to the Belarusian people 
and the National Assembly, on March 31st, 2023

Split benefits

As a result of targeted actions of nuclear opponents, the production of electricity by nuclear power plants in Germany decreased by almost one and a half times from 1991 to 2012. Over the next 10 years, the nuclear share in the country’s energy sector dropped by half. This dynamic pattern was typical for the whole world.     
Just ten years ago, nuclear power plants in Germany generated more than 25 percent of all electricity in the country, whereas now — only 12 percent. Power plants were forced to close under pressure from green activists after the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, which was somewhat strange since Germany does not suffer from earthquakes or tsunamis which caused the accident in Japan. 
All those steps were determined by the pan-European policy on the closure of nuclear power plants, primarily in the countries of the former Soviet Union as well as in the former member states of the Warsaw Pact. A striking example is the EU actions against the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant located in Lithuania. The closure of this station was one of the preconditions for Lithuania’s accession to the European Union. 

The revised decision 

There were plans to build a new Visaginas NPP next to the shutdown Ignalina NPP by 2015-2021. Negotiations were held between Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the Japanese company Hitachi. The prime ministers of the Baltic States argued that there was no alternative to nuclear energy and the construction of a new power unit would contribute to energy security and economic growth in the region. Those plans did not materialise, though. 
Still, at the opening of the Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels in March 2023, President of the European Council Charles Michel made a fateful statement about the European Union’s return to the widespread use of nuclear energy to ensure its energy sovereignty. However, the European official was disingenuous having named the conflict in Ukraine as the root cause of the European energy crisis. It should be understood that the shortage of energy resources in the EU arose solely as a result of sanctions against Russia imposed by the European Union, which included an embargo on purchase of Russian oil and coal. Most EU countries also refused to pay for gas supplies in Russian roubles, which led to their sharp reduction. 

Modular prospects

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who co-chaired the summit, stated that his country was actively engaged in the development of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), which in his opinion represent a bright future. He reminded that Belgium’s government had already invested €100m for research and considered SMRs to be the main focus in the field of nuclear developments. 
Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans called on Bulgaria to phase out coal production and purchase, promising that in return the EU would provide support if Bulgaria resumed the construction of the Belene Nuclear Power Plant. Interestingly, coal still occupies the main share among energy carriers there.    
It is clear that time has been lost. While Germany was destroying its nuclear power plants, the United States was actively ramping up their number. Now it is the United States that boasts the largest number of nuclear power plants in the world.   
France, the main nuclear supporter in Europe, has always systematically increased its nuclear capacity. As a result, it currently generates about 70 percent of all electricity consumed in the country.

The logic of realism

It is revealing that after the beginning of the gas crisis, a group of well-known European scientists and environmentalists wrote an open letter to the German government urging to cancel the decision to close nuclear power plants. The document provided solid arguments in defence of nuclear power plants both from an economic standpoint — power generation does not depend on the weather or gas prices, and an environmental one — the shutdown of nuclear power plants may lead to increased CO2 emissions if renewable energy sources fail to generate electricity again and have to be replaced with fuel stations.
It should also be borne in mind that Europe is still focused on supporting combat actions in Ukraine, and this requires enormous financial resources that will clearly not be allocated to the nuclear industry.  
At the same time, the realisation of reality that the United States took advantage of the EU has dawned on Europeans. The Head of the European Diplomacy, Josep Borrell, emphasised in this regard, “We are not part of this war. There is no need to scare people that war is inevitable. This is not about dying for Donbass.”
Thus, it is apparent that the existence of sovereignty makes it possible to independently determine the order of development of the national energy system. Belarus is a vivid example of benefiting from its sovereignty. We, Belarusians, have created our own nuclear power plant in liaison with our Russian colleagues despite all the criticism and external pressure. After a short period of time, it has become clear that our path proved to be the right one. Europeans, on the other hand, are only now returning to the logic of realism, having lost time. 

By Aleksei Avdonin, analyst at Belarusian Institute for Strategic Research (BISR)