2021 was a difficult year for many as pandemic lock downs caused an almost global economic slowdown, as people were confined to their homes European citizens faced striking energy price surges that created a dangerous shortage of power for many homes across the continent. With economies already straining under the weight of COVID-19 rising energy prices can only add fuel to the fire. In the past there was a clear solution, an increase in the burning of fossil fuels. Yet, as climate change is beginning to have a damaging effect on global society and many citizens calling for a stronger plan to mitigate these disastrous changes to our climate, the further exploitation of coal, gas and oil is no longer a feasible option. As fully renewable energy sources such as solar and wind currently lack the infrastructure needed to reliably supply power to the masses, the solution may lie in a dark horse within the Energy Sector.
Nuclear power has been in use since the 1960s and European Countries such as France has implemented it strongly into their energy infrastructure. Other states such as the United Kingdom and Belgium also benefit from the use of nuclear energy plants but in recent years the percentage of power supplied by nuclear energy has decreased. There is a clear and understandable stigma that surrounds the power source due to catastrophe events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear disasters that have created large zones of uninhabitable land and has affected hundreds of lives. Despite these massively destructive events there is data to support the fact that nuclear energy may be far safer than its fossil fuel counterparts. In a comprehensive study Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser analysed extensive data sets for all forms of mainstream energy sources these included renewables, nuclear, and fossil fuels. This research also took into account several different aspects of safety including Air pollution, Accidents including loss of life from the mining and processing of the fuels, and greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 etc.). Their analysis provided a very interesting conclusion. Basing how many deaths occur for every terawatt- hour (TWh) of energy produced (roughly the consumption of 27,000 Europeans per year), it showed that nuclear energy accounted for 98% fewer deaths than coal, and 97% fewer deaths than natural gas. It is also clear that nuclear energy is a far greener alternative to fossil fuels as well. Using a smaller measure of 1 gigawatt hour (GWh), around the consumption of 160 Europeans per year, nuclear energy produced 3 tonnes of greenhouse gases, compared to a staggering 820 tonnes produced by coal and 720 tonnes emitted by the burning of oil.
While renewable energy sources are far and away the best solution to the world’s energy needs in the future, much of the renewable energy infrastructure is still in its infancy and doesn’t offer a feasible solution to the current energy challenges facing many European homes. Nuclear energy stands to become the bridge between fossil fuel dependence and the widespread use of renewable energy sources. The infrastructure and technology are already well established and the science behind the creation of the energy is well researched. The European Union has also created the perfect environment for Member States to pool knowledge, experience in nuclear energy, and resources to develop a strong infrastructure of greener energy while renewable sources such as solar and wind continue to develop and grow, to eventually provide a sustainable energy solution for European States
Alongside the environmental and health benefits from the use of nuclear energy European States can also tap into alternative markets for power resources. In Europe there is a tense relationship with oil and gas rich countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s poor record for Human Rights protections does not mesh well with the European Union’s mandate for social equality and free markets. Russia has used their access to natural gas in strong arm tactics against Eastern Europe States, going as far as diverting essential natural gas away from neighbouring states dependent on Russia for energy. A shift to nuclear energy would lessen Europe’s reliance on Russian gas transported through the Nord Stream pipeline, often a point of contention alongside the Nord Stream II pipeline currently in construction through Turkey. Relieving some of this energy dependence from Russia is a priority for European States especially those countries that lie within the former Soviet Union. In comparison, those states rich in uranium, the essential element in the production of nuclear energy, such as Australia and Canada enjoy a more open relationship with European Markets. Europe and Canada already share a strong relationship and trade regularly and openly, Canada’s open democracy works well with the ethos and methods of the European Single Market and comes with far fewer political consequences if one party is unhappy with the deal. Australia is a very similar market on the other side of the globe. Using nuclear energy provides a way to shift European energy dependency away from states such as Russia and into more friendly negotiation arenas.
Nuclear energy does not come without its risks, Chernobyl was one of the most catastrophic manmade disasters in history and still effects many people in the surrounding areas. Even the chance of a nuclear meltdown is a very serious prospect and there is the ever-present shadow of radioactive leaks effecting the area surrounding the plant. Additionally, the process used to generate the energy is not 100% “clean” with dangerous nuclear waste by-products that need to be carefully stored. There is also the danger of weaponization unique to the production of the uranium needed to create the supply for these power plants. What can be used to provide green energy to millions can easily be used to destroy and threaten other states through the production of nuclear warhead missiles. Any large-scale production what to be done with extreme oversight and be very heavily regulated but the European Union has such an organisation well established. As old as the first European Community. Euratom has acted as Europe’s main body on nuclear energy and was first founded in the 1950s alongside the European Coal and Steel Community, this organisation stands poised to provide the opportunities needed to mitigate the risks associated with nuclear energy production. More investment in nuclear infrastructure can develop safer housing conditions for nuclear waste and further research may provide a way to dispose of it completely or find a use for the by-products in other processes. Establishing nuclear watchdogs can help police the production of uranium needed for power production and oversee the safety of power plants, minimising the risk radioactive leaks and ensuring that meltdowns become next to impossible. There has already been the development of Thorium reactors, an innovation that limits the amount of processed uranium and mitigates the risk of nuclear warhead production.
If the near future seems atomic, why has there been a decrease in the production of nuclear power? A mixture of poor media attention and fears of nuclear weaponization has prevented any significant development in the European nuclear power sector. The costs of developing and maintaining these power plants is also high making it difficult for some developing European states to build the infrastructure needed to safely generate nuclear power. There is also political pressure as the development of nuclear power can quickly turn to the development of nuclear weapons, leading many states to become skeptical of any neighbours with nuclear ambitions. But European States have something unique, the European Union is in a key position to assist in further establishing the nuclear energy sector. The EU’s single market is the perfect platform to pool resources, develop infrastructure, and distribute the energy produced across the European States. Institutions such as Euratom already oversee the production and distribution of the resources, and that generation of the power is done within strict regulations. The main challenge lies in convincing European Union Member states that the immediate future for European energy lies in the atom. This is clear to some European countries as Member states have already called for nuclear energy to gain a more prominent place in Europe’s energy sector. France, alongside several other member states have urged the EU to label nuclear energy as a green energy, this would give nuclear energy access to funds and the Europe Union’s various development projects aiming to promote the sustainable development of its Member States. At the same time, other states have started to reduce their use of nuclear energy, closing down their power plants. Outside of the European Union, the United Kingdom has stated they are making nuclear energy the heart of their plans for a green energy UK. Convincing member states about the benefits from nuclear energy will not be easy and the cogs of decision making have always run slow. Despite its large host of benefits the European Union only works fast in the midst of a crisis. If energy prices continue to rise and if Russia continues to increase its pressure alongside the eastern European states a new crisis could quickly present itself.
Is it time to turn the Atom green? If Europe hopes to reach it’s Paris agreement targets, mitigate some of its dependence on Russian gas, and provide reliable energy infrastructure to European Citizens, the answer is looking like yes and the Europe Union is in a unique position to quickly develop its nuclear power capacity. The Single Market provides the perfect platform to share the benefits of increasing nuclear infrastructure and it already has well established nuclear watchdogs through Euratom ready to minimize the risks associated with nuclear power plants. The inclusion of nuclear energy among those greener sources also brings into question what is meant by “Green Energy” as it can’t be argued that nuclear energy doesn’t have dangerous by-products. It is true that there are few greenhouse emissions but it is not a “clean” energy source. It may be time to broaden the scope of the term “Green Energy” while also making a distinction between “Green” and “Clean” energy sources. As the reduction of CO2 emissions and the mitigation of climate change becomes increasingly important, European states will need to compromise and settle for “green” energy sources while the “clean” solar and wind find their feet. The most important question is if the EU is ready to make this compromise, while debates and negotiations drag, energy prices are continuing to surge and the effects of climate change are becoming stronger, leading to violent weather effects and the disruption of society across Europe. As time goes on the chances of doing too little to late are mounting, if the European Union and Europe as a whole hope to start making a strong positive impact on climate change and ensure a strong energy infrastructure for the near future, a concrete decision must be made. When choosing between the potential danger nuclear energy poses and the almost certain calamity brought on by the continued used of fossil fuels it may be the right time to choose the lesser evil.