In April 2023, Germany shut down its last remaining nuclear power plant. Berlin took the decision over a decade ago, motivated by concerns over the safety of nuclear power to both people and the environment. The closure happened amid the energy crisis in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the seriousness of which gave a sharper edge to criticism of the German government. To this backdrop, a clear division has emerged between two camps of supporters and opponents of nuclear energy’s place in the European Union’s energy transition. But such arguments have old roots, and digging them back up is a distraction for member states – especially if they are to work together to achieve their urgent energy goals.
The new old debate
The first camp is dubbed the “nuclear alliance”, with France as the informal leader. It is a sizeable grouping, made up of Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Hungary, Estonia, Italy, and Poland.
France’s interest is fully understandable. Nuclear accounts for the largest share of the country’s electricity generation, despite its fall to 63 per cent in 2022, the lowest in the last three decades. In February, President Emmanuel Macron announced the construction of a further six reactors by 2035 and did not rule out the possibility of this figure rising to a total of 14 new reactors by 2050. In addition to France, new nuclear projects are planned or under consideration in most of the other countries in the nuclear alliance.
The second camp comprises opponents and sceptics of nuclear energy, including Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Portugal.
In addition to the more established safety and environmental issues, such critics question the dependence on external suppliers created by relying on nuclear fuel or uranium, Russia above all. Currently, 18 reactors in five EU countries are supplied with Russian nuclear fuel while almost 20 per cent of total uranium imports to the EU are from Russia. Moreover, Hungary still maintains its interest in working with Russia on nuclear projects, including constructing new nuclear units at its Paks power plant. Member states using nuclear power have been active in searching for new sources of necessary supplies. ECFR’s Energy Deals Tracker shows that such agreements have been concluded by Bulgaria (deals with US company Westinghouse) and the Czech Republic (a deal with Westinghouse and a deal with French company Framatome).
But the main axis of the dispute rests on whether nuclear power should be treated in the EU as so-called “clean energy,” and whether projects using nuclear power should be accorded a similar status to those involving renewable energy sources. A fierce political struggle has arisen over the shape of EU regulations related to the implementation of the European Green Deal. The nuclear alliance has recorded some successes, such as obtaining the inclusion of nuclear power in the taxonomy, the EU’s classification list of environmentally sustainable economic activities. However, the battle is not over. The pro-nuclear countries, in particular France, are pressing for EU regulations to recognise the contribution of low-carbon nuclear power (including for hydrogen production) as a clean fuel. They are making a revision of EU targets to increase energy production from renewable sources conditional on this demand being met.
Despite the objections raised by sceptics, nuclear power is currently one of the cleanest and safest ways of obtaining electricity in the world. Moreover, a total of 103 reactors are currently in operation in 13 EU member states, accounting for about 25 per cent of electricity generation across the bloc. Nuclear projects are able to contribute to the decarbonisation processes in the economies of some EU member states. The trick for the EU and its member states will be to balance the investment they devote to nuclear and renewables, and not to lose sight of the need to develop renewable energy in particular.
Poland’s recent entry into nuclear power illustrates the advantages of incorporating nuclear in the national energy mix – but also points to some potential drawbacks.
Poland’s share of coal in the national energy mix is among the largest in the EU, standing at almost 71 per cent last year. To meet its Paris climate goals, the country needs to move quickly to bring this right down. Poland is building new renewable generation capacity to contribute to the decarbonisation process, but it also envisages a role for nuclear power. Reports suggest the authorities are planning to build both large nuclear units and small modular reactors as part of an updated energy policy. The construction of Poland’s first nuclear power plant is scheduled to start in 2026, and it should begin operating in 2033, with a capacity of about 1-1.6 GW. Subsequent reactors are scheduled to be implemented every 2-3 years. According to government estimates, three reactors with a total capacity of around 4 GW could meet the energy needs of 12 million households, which would provide nearly complete coverage in Poland. Westinghouse and South Korean company KHNP are involved in projects.
It should be borne in mind that nuclear projects are costly and take quite some time to complete. The Polish authorities estimate the cost of the nuclear programme to come to around €41 billion, so the amount planned for nuclear projects is expected to total around 26 per cent of all the funds deployed for the energy transition. However, the scale of Poland’s nuclear ambitions could balloon to €217 billion, according to one independent estimate.
Moreover, the role of nuclear in transforming Poland’s energy mix will only become apparent over a longer time horizon. Draft plans suggest the share of coal in Poland’s electricity production should fall from the current 71 per cent to 8 per cent in 2040, while the share of nuclear power in the energy mix would rise to nearly a quarter.
In comparison, renewable energy is expected to account for approximately 50 per cent of Poland’s energy mix. And, although nuclear can assist the country’s energy transformation, it remains the case that renewable energy development is of much greater importance. Renewable energy capacity in Poland already jumped from 4.9 GW in 2013 to 23 GW in 2022 and accounts for around 38 per cent of the total installed capacity in Poland. This may rise yet further to 50 GW by 2030, and then again to 88 GW in 2040. In countries such as Poland, which are just starting to implement their first nuclear energy projects, nuclear certainly has a role to play, but its place should be complementary to the development of renewable energy sources.
Ways to get along
EU member states should respect one another’s individual decisions on nuclear energy. In practice, this should mean avoiding the temptation to level political criticism at fellow governments that are phasing out nuclear power plants. This is especially the case if a government has linked its decision to plans to boost the importance of renewable energy in its national energy mix, as Germany has done. Berlin’s Energiewende strategy envisages a significant increase in the share of renewable energy alongside a systematic reduction in other sources.
At the same time, opponents of nuclear power should refrain from criticism and from the use of legal instruments to block nuclear projects planned in other member states. This is particularly with regard to such projects in countries like Poland, where nuclear is set to play an important part in the energy transition. Nor should nuclear opponents torpedo efforts to have nuclear energy recognised as a form of clean energy in EU strategy documents and legal acts.
At the same time, members of the nuclear alliance should not give up on developing renewable energy projects that can influence the pace of decarbonisation in EU countries at a lower cost and over a faster timeframe. In practice, this should mean not only improving the legal framework for implementing such projects (in Poland especially regarding onshore wind projects, whose potential remains great), but also providing financial support and investment in electricity grids to increase the possibility of connecting new renewables capacities to the electricity system.
Finally, countries that use nuclear energy, or plan to build new nuclear units in cooperation with third parties, should establish partnerships with friendly and reliable partners such as the United States and South Korea. It is also important to continue efforts to reduce dependence on Russian supplies of uranium and nuclear fuel, as part of the wider process of energy decoupling from Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.