The power of pragmatism: Nuclear energy, technological innovation, and the green transition

To propel the green transition, the EU needs to combine more self-sufficiency in nuclear energy with a forward-thinking approach to technological innovation

Low Angle Photo Of Nuclear Power Plant Buildings Emtting Smoke

Winston Churchill’s approach was that facts come first and only then can leaders act in accordance with their values. But, sometimes, the problem lies not in a lack of real facts, but in the lack of a mature assessment of those facts.

The European Union is a champion of the green transition. Yet, since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine and energy war in Europe, doubts have set in about whether the EU has a realistic long-term vision. Carbon emissions are decreasing more slowly than is necessary to achieve the Paris goals, while Germany is even experiencing an increase of emissions. According to Eurostat, in 2020 around 65 per cent of the electricity generated in the EU came from ‘baseload’ capacities: 24 per cent from nuclear power (despite Germany hastily and naively closing 19 reactors because of cheap Russian gas) and 41 per cent from coal and gas plants. The change in 2022 was negligible. Moreover, electricity generation from coal and gas has increased.

This distortion seems to be down to naivety, wishful thinking, inertia, or even laziness: we buy, we install and consume, and then we go to bed. Moreover, ideological barriers have sprung up around complex technologies that require highly skilled and knowledgeable workers, such as the next generation of nuclear technologies. Of course, renewables should top the list of factors driving the green transition, alongside greater efficiency and technological developments or innovations. But it is better to temper lofty ambitions than to continue spending money just because something is desirable. We need pragmatism – and we need nuclear power.

Overcoming ‘nuclearphobia’

In the past years, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and his cronies have poured considerable effort and millions of euros into stigmatising certain energy sources. Russian proxies in both politics and business capitalised on fear in Germany (and beyond) of nuclear technologies, while simultaneously stoking anxieties in eastern Europe about the consequences of diversifying away from Russian nuclear reactors and fuel. They did this to subdue western Europe into buying Russian gas and to maintain Russia’s control over nuclear energy generation in the east.

Since Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, nuclear power has helped the world maintain a degree of energy security, and even protection against radioactive contamination. It is no coincidence that – despite the destruction of Ukraine’s coal and hydropower plants, high-voltage grids, and distribution centres – Russian forces have heeded warnings not to attack its nuclear power plants. Thermal, hydroelectric, and renewable plants can be rebuilt relatively quickly, at a reasonable price. And the environmental pollution produced by their destruction is not catastrophic. Even Putin’s bunker, however, would be vulnerable to the radioactive clouds from the destruction of a nuclear power plant. A nuclear plant would also take up to 12 years to replace, using components from the West that are under embargo for Russia.

As part of the invasion, Putin and his cronies hoped to acquire 15 Ukrainian nuclear reactors and blocks to save the $120 billion it would cost to build a similar number – even if that came at the price of 120,000 dead Russian soldiers. If Putin cannot appropriate the plants, he will shut them down by cutting off supplies of fresh nuclear fuel. As European efforts over the past year have shown, gas is replaceable in mere months. But nuclear fuel requires a three-year analysis and then a further 18 months to produce.

European leaders, particularly those in the east of the EU, need to acknowledge the risks of their continued dependence on Russia’s nuclear reactors and nuclear fuel. There are four Russian-made 1000mw reactors in the eastern part of the EU – two in Temelin, Czech Republic and two in Kozloduy, Bulgaria. There are also 14 smaller Russian-made nuclear reactors in Europe – four in Dukovany, Czech Republic; four in Paks, Hungary; two in Lovisa, Finland; two in Bohunice, Slovakia; and two in Mohovce, also in Slovakia. These countries have a long track record of energy dependence on Russia.

The replacement of Russian nuclear fuel with American and French nuclear fuel is a matter of urgency. The EU could facilitate this through direct financial aid or, for instance, an EU fund for the modernisation of fuel and fuel and safety systems. This would help ensure that EU and NATO countries quickly achieve self-sufficiency in atomic energy.

The future of energy security 

Russia’s war in Ukraine should also lead to an awakening among European politicians of the need to address Europe’s technological lag – in atomic energy and beyond.

EU member states depend almost entirely on imports from China for solar technologies and batteries. The EU’s Green Deal Industrial Plan, in turn, focuses on the development of European production capacities for more effective and clean energy sources, including batteries for use with renewables, to reduce the EU’s reliance on cheap but less effective Chinese products. The plan also highlights the need for investment in European innovation and to nurture skills, as well as create jobs in the research and development of photovoltaic solar cells and wind turbines. Yet, up to now, most of the skills nurtured and jobs created seem to be those that relate to securing and benefiting from EU subsidies – while issues with permits mean many of the onshore wind farms and photovoltaic parks have simply not materialised. This does not inspire confidence.

Russia’s war in Ukraine should lead to an awakening among European politicians of the need to address Europe’s technological lag

The beneficiaries of EU subsidies for new technologies should lead investment in replacing parts of baseload fossil fuel capacity with renewables. They profit through renewable parks, especially photovoltaics, but not one enterprise has managed to scale this production to any significant degree. These companies know the product and have the experience; they now need to invest in more effective uses for renewables. For example, they could use their business experience to increase the capacity of offshore wind turbines.

These processes should not turn into just another way to lobby for more subsidies – the aim should be green technology not green propaganda. The time has come for a more forward-thinking approach. Currently, high-level discoveries and innovations from US universities are more than five times better commercialised than those emerging from universities in the EU. Europeans can start to address this lag by taking investment risks and providing more support for startups. They should, for example, invest in ‘DeepTech’ initiatives, such as in sustainable information technology, advanced materials, new forms of industrial automation, and even new business models. If they do not, the EU’s ‘sedentariness’ could prevent it becoming the third pillar of the world order, on equal footing with the United States and China.

The European Commission needs to view the preservation and expansion of the EU’s technological and – especially – nuclear capacity as an essential strategic task. A fundamental part of this will be the creation of a less risk-averse environment for innovation and technical advancement. EU member states need to retain and encourage highly skilled professionals in areas in which their qualification takes decades. These young people have little interest in the energy production facilities of the 1970s or 1980s. A good place to start in eastern Europe would be to replace Soviet-era nuclear technologies with more-advanced, safe, and efficient technologies that can serve until the end of the century. Nobody drives a Moskvitch anymore.

Svilen Spasov is an ECFR Council Member, and founder and chair of the Open Society Club in Varna, Bulgaria. He has been a Bulgarian business leader for more than 30 years, working with British, American, and Dutch companies, including as country manager for Westinghouse from 2010 to 2018.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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