Nuclear Power Is a Dead End. We Must Abandon It Completely.

Nuclear Power Is a Dead End. We Must Abandon It Completely.

Nuclear Power Is a Dead End. We Must Abandon It Completely.

Even given Europe’s energy crisis, the case against nuclear power has never been so conclusive—and so important.


Berlin—Amid a confluence of crises—the Ukraine war, an energy crisis, and climate breakdown—nuclear energy is experiencing a renaissance, at least in the rhetoric of politicians and pundits across Europe, North America, and beyond. After all, it’s tempting to propose these generators of low-carbon energy as a panacea to this daunting phalanx of calamities.

But in fact, the case against nuclear power and for genuinely renewable energies has never been so conclusive—and so important. In early March, Russia captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine—the largest in Europe with six reactors, each the size of the one that melted down in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster—and transformed it into an army base from which it fires artillery at Ukrainian positions.

Although this weaponizing of nuclear reactors had long been recognized as a threat, the vulnerability of nuclear power plants in conflict zones is now center stage in Europe. The battlefield in this case is controlled by an unpredictable autocrat who has threatened that he’ll use every means at his disposal to destroy Ukraine. At the Zaporizhzhia station, the Russian military has taken the Ukrainian nuclear engineers hostage, and is working them at gunpoint. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned in August that there’s a “real risk of nuclear disaster” unless the fighting stops. Russia could sabotage a power plant like Zaporizhzhia and attempt to shift the blame onto Ukraine. A nuclear weapon strike would be a crime against humanity, but a disaster at nuclear plant could blur responsibility and complicate the international response. Nuclear plants, where military-scale security is nonexistent, are sitting ducks for acts of terrorism and wartime targeting.

At the same time, the world’s nuclear power champion, France, has punctured the myth that nuclear power is a round-the-clock energy source that can operate without back-up reserves—a favorite trope of wind and solar power skeptics. Nowhere in Europe today is the energy crisis more acute than in France, where for much of this year, between a third and over half of France’s 56 nuclear reactors have been shut down either because weather-warmed rivers cannot cool their systems or on account of corrosion damage, hairline cracks, staff shortages, and pending maintenance work on their geriatric hardware. The outages have forced France to rely on Germany for electricity imports—culled in large part from the wind and solar farms that supply almost half of Germany’s electricity. In August, France’s power prices hit €1,100 per megawatt-hour, more than 10 times the 2021 price, smashing records across the continent.

Both France and Germany are in for bruising winters of shortages, energy skimping, and price rises, and not—as Charles Komanoff wrote in The Nation on April 4—because “Germany’s reactor closures over the past decade deepened its dependence on Russian gas” but rather because Berlin dramatically increased its reliance on Russian gas and dragged its heels on clean energy expansion. Neither country set in motion the build-out of renewables, decentralized grids, district heating, storage facilities, and energy efficiency measures fast enough to compensate for dwindling nuclear energy. Germany’s tunnel-vision leadership during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rule opted for Russian gas because it was cheap, easy to access, and in the hands of a supposedly reliable partner (one who invaded Crimea in 2014 and set up pro-Russian enclaves in Ukraine).

Critics’ original concern with nuclear power, namely its safety, remains paramount. The two most catastrophic meltdowns, in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union and the Fukushima site in Japan, in 2011, had horrific repercussions that still haunt those regions. But these mega disasters are only the most well known. According to IAEA, there have been 33 serious incidents at nuclear power stations worldwide since 1952—two in France and six in the United States.

These accident numbers don’t include the toxic fallout from lax disposal and storage of nuclear waste. Between 1945 and 1993, 13 countries, including the UK, the US, and the Soviet Union, heaved barrels of nuclear waste into their seas—a total of 200,000 tons—presuming the vast ocean waters would dissolve and dilute it. Those casks still lie there today.

This sad chapter belongs to the 80-year-old saga of nuclear waste. Currently, there’s over a quarter-million metric tons of spent fuel rods sitting above ground, usually in cooling pools at both closed-down and operative nuclear plants, waiting like Samuel Beckett’s protagonists Vladimir and Estragon for a definitive solution that will never come.

In northern Europe, the Finns claim that they’ve solved it by digging 100 tunnels 1,400 feet into the bedrock of an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Bothnia. Underway now for decades, this $3.4 billion undertaking, the first permanent repository in the world, will eventually hold all of Finland’s spent nuclear refuse—less than 1 percent of the world’s accumulated radioactive remnants—until about 2100. This highly radioactive mass will, its operators promise, remain catacombed for 100,000 years. (Since nuclear waste is lethal for up to 300,000 years, these sites are a time-bomb for whoever or whatever is inhabiting the planet then, assuming geological conditions allow it to lie peacefully for that long.) In light of Finland’s small volume of radioactive waste, the full lifetime price tag of nearly $8 billion dollars is significantly more per ton than the estimated $34.9 billion, $19.8 billion, and $96 billion that the France, Germany, and the United States respectively will shell out for nuclear waste management, according to the World Nuclear Waste Report 2019.

Most countries don’t have barren islands far from groundwater sources, so they have to make do, like Switzerland did in September when it announced that it intends to excavate a geological storage repository near the German border, closer to German towns in Baden Württemberg than Swiss ones. Germany’s borderland communities are vigorously contesting the choice, which will probably be abandoned by the Swiss. Nearly all proposed sites end up scratched for the obvious reason that nobody wants to live next to a nuclear waste dump.

“Nowhere in the world has anyone managed to create a place where we can bury extremely nasty nuclear waste forever,” Denis Florin of Lavoisier Conseil, an energy-focused management consultancy in Paris, told the Financial Times earlier this year. “We cannot go on using nuclear without being adult about the waste, without accepting we need to find a permanent solution.”

The inherent danger of nuclear power is often relativized by advocates as the bitter pill we must choke down in light of its other advantages. In fact, the knock-out arguments against the nuclear industry today are reactors’ cost and deployment time. The greatest barriers to this claimed renaissance—and it is primarily talk, not investment—is its inability to deliver affordable power on time and on budget.

Nuclear energy is such a colossal expense—into the tens of billions of dollars, like the $30 billion Vogtle units in Waynesboro, Ga.—that few private investors will touch them, even with prodigious government bankrolling. The UK government finally found a taker for its Hinkley Point C station in 2016 when it offered lavish subsidies to the French energy firm EDF. But even that deal becomes less sweet the higher construction costs spiral and the longer EDF postpones its opening beyond 2025. So catastrophic are the cost overruns of EDF’s projects worldwide that the company could no longer service its €43 billion debt and this year agreed to full nationalization. But experts say this alone won’t solve any of the fundamental problems at Hinkley C or the Flamanville plant in Normandy, which is 10 years behind schedule, with costs fives times in excess of the original budget. Cost overruns are one reason that one in eight new reactor projects that start construction are abandoned.

While safety concerns drive up the cost of nuclear plant insurance, the price of renewables is predicted to sink by 50 percent or more by 2030. Study after study attests that wind and solar cost a fraction of the price of nuclear power: at least three to eight times the bang for the buck in terms of energy generation and climate protection, at a time when the exorbitant cost of energy is causing recessions and street protests across Europe. It is because solar photovoltaic and wind power are the cheapest bulk power source in most of the world that renewables, grids, and storage now account for more than 80 percent of power sector investment. In 2021, companies, governments, and households invested 15 times as much in renewable energy than in nuclear. They’re simply the better buy.

Nuclear is much too slow

Indeed, in the face of an ever more cataclysmic climate crisis that demands solutions now—like hitting the EU’s 2030 targets of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 55 percent of 1990 levels by 2030—the build-out of nuclear is painfully, prohibitively slow. In Europe, just one nuclear reactor has been planned, commissioned, financed, constructed, and put online since 2000—that’s Finland’s Olkiluoto-3 reactors (March 2022). Europe’s flagship nuclear projects—called European Pressurized Reactors—have been dogged by delays from the start. The Olkiluoto-3 reactors in Finland, which had been scheduled to go online in 2009, still isn’t heating homes. Globally, the average construction time—which count the planning, licensing, site preparation, and arranging of finances—is about a decade.

Small-scale modular reactors (SMR), advanced with funding during the Obama administration, are supposedly the industry’s savior—the so-called next generation—although they’ve been around for decades. Purportedly quicker to build, with factory-made parts, they generate at most a 10th of the energy as a conventional reactor. Yet they are not significantly different in terms of their problems. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2022 claims that, so far, they have been both slower to deploy than conventional reactors and more expensive per kilowatt capacity. A recent study conducted by Stanford University and University of British Columbia came to the conclusion that “overall, SMRs are inferior to conventional reactors with respect to radioactive waste generation, management requirements, and disposal options.”

Nuclear and renewables don’t mix

Finally, the last claim of nuclear supporters is that the massive baseload supply that reactors provide when they’re up and running is just what systems reliant on weather-based renewables need at down times. In fact, nuclear is the opposite of what decentralized clean energy systems require.

Renewables and nuclear energy don’t mix well in one system, explains Toby Couture of the Berlin-based think tank E3 Analytics. “What renewables need is not so-called baseload power,” he told me, “which is inflexible and unable to ramp up and down, but flexible, nimble supply provided by the likes of storage capacity, smart grids, demand management, and a growing toolbox of other mechanisms, not the large and inflexible supply of nuclear reactors.”

Couture added, “The inability of nuclear power to ramp down effectively to ‘make room’ for cheap wind and solar is one of the main reasons why France’s own domestic renewable energy development has lagged behind its peers.” According to Couture, France’s inability to flexibly accommodate wind and solar has exacerbated the continent-wide power supply crunch.

In light of the energy crisis, Germany may extend the lifetime of two of its three remaining nuclear plants for three months, in a reserve capacity beyond their scheduled end-of-year closure date. This emergency measure, a direct consequence of the previous governments’ failures, does not alter the logic against nuclear power, which even Germany’s own nuclear industry now accepts. Renewables, clean tech, and energy efficiency are easy to rollout, cost-effective, safe, and proven. Let’s concentrate on deploying these technologies at full speed to decarbonize our world before the impacts of climate change overwhelm us.

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