Nuclear power, the underdog of Europe’s energy mix
The word ‘nuclear’ evokes strong emotions and many of these, if we’re being completely honest, are tied up around the notion of nuclear warheads and nuclear conflict. In today’s increasingly unstable world order, citizens are regularly exposed to rolling news coverage about nuclear proliferation issues, a recent example being the failed February summit between the United States and North Korea that took place in Vietnam.
Is there still a future for nuclear?
Even when moving away from the bomb and thinking about nuclear power as a viable and acceptable component of Europe’s current and future energy mix, opposition to nuclear energy can still be fierce. Of course, probably the incident that remains in the minds of older Europeans is the terrible disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, but the more recent 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan also wasn’t exactly great PR for the nuclear power industry, especially in Europe. In the aftermath of Fukushima, the German government decided to accelerate its plans to close all of its nuclear power stations by 2022, the Italian population voted against the expansion of nuclear power in a referendum and even France, long dependent on nuclear energy to provide up to 75 % of the country’s domestic energy needs, announced it would aim to cut its nuclear output by a third over 20 years.
But nuclear power is, and will remain, an important contributor to Europe’s energy mix for the foreseeable future. The EU depends on nuclear power for more than a quarter of its electricity needs, and a higher proportion of base-load power, according to the World Nuclear Association. Importantly for the EU’s ambitious climate goals, nuclear power provides over half of the Union’s low-carbon electricity. Combined with the fact that the EU is the world’s largest energy importer and a large amount of time has been spent in recent years on how to increase its energy independence, through initiatives such as the Energy Union, policymakers cannot afford to overlook the positive benefits that nuclear power can still provide.
Of course, the keyword is safety – nuclear power will only be fully embraced by Europeans as an acceptable energy source if they are convinced that policymakers and engineers have taken every step necessary (and more) to ensure the robustness of all the nuclear power plants dotted around the continent. And this is an important issue – with the ghosts of Chernobyl and Fukushima still hovering overhead, several European countries that heavily rely on nuclear power, such as Belgium, are also saddled with ageing plants that need to be either fully overhauled and modernised or replaced completely.
Flowing naturally from this, several of the projects featured in this month’s special feature focus on new innovations to increase safety standards whilst modernising the technology used to harness nuclear power. But whilst safety factors are crucial, we don’t just stop there – because the debate over the pros and cons of continuing to rely on nuclear power is complex and multi-sided, we have taken pains to examine the debate from other angles as well. This includes projects that have encouraged greater regional efforts to increase nuclear cooperation between European countries, as well as diving into the social sciences to explore how nearly 75 years of nuclear power has profoundly affected and influenced European civil society and its attitude towards current and future energy sources.
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