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Why it is time to look past nuclear energy

Nuclear energy gets a lot of bad credit by the media, even though it is considered to be among the safest energy sources. But putting safety aside, there are many arguments to be made against this technology, like the heavily subsidised operation, unresolved waste management issues, and a clear cost disadvantage compared to wind and solar power. We here at neoom also have a special relationship with the mighty nuclear power plant, and it’s not a positive one. No, we are not specifically talking about the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl and its fallout that made us avoid picking and eating mushrooms in our forests due to radioactive poisoning in the 80s. We are talking about our own close proximity to the Temelín nuclear power plant. By car it’s just an hour and a half drive (or about 90km) from our HQ in Freistadt to the biggest Czech nuclear power plant, which from the start of its operation in 2002 onwards has caused constant unease  among the people of the upper Austrian region. The construction and operation of this plant met fierce resistance from the government of Upper Austria, which has been calling it a “high-risk reactor” for years now.

Nobody has a good gut feeling when it comes to having these reactors on their home turf, so countries are willing to minimize this risk as long as there is an alternative. Germany committed to a nuclear phase-out back in 2011 after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan and recently took three of their old plants off the grid with only three remaining to follow by the end of this year. One of the biggest countries in Europe leaving nuclear energy for good must be a sign for its demise, mustn’t it? Not so fast, as the EU commission now plans to include nuclear energy in its taxonomy, labelling it a sustainable energy source, because it does not cause direct CO2 emissions. But can nuclear energy really help us towards a clean energy future? What about the alternatives? Let’s get down to it.

Why is nuclear energy currently all over the media?

On February 2nd, the EU Commission released the final version of a proposal to classify investments in nuclear power plants as climate-friendly. This news now caused further backlash from governments and environmental organizations alike. Environmentalists see this not only as a setback for introducing sustainable energy sources, but also as a huge environmental concern caused by the accruing nuclear waste. And yes, the worry about a malfunction or even a meltdown still lingers. While representatives of the German government sharply criticize the inclusion of nuclear power in the taxonomy and condemn it as a “high-risk technology,” countries such as France, which still rely on nuclear power for a large part of their electricity production, see it as a cornerstone of a CO2-free energy supply. Many other EU countries do not have nuclear power plants themselves, but do not publicly reject the technology, because they are able to import cheap nuclear power from other countries.

The people and the politics in our native country Austria, on the other hand, have a very strong opposition to nuclear power, as we are able to produce a large share of electricity through our powerful hydro power plants, wind turbines and biomass plants. But in 1978, even Austria constructed a complete power plant (the infamous Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant) only to abandon it shortly before commissioning due to the public voting against nuclear energy in Austria’s first public referendum. This stance became the political consensus ever since and was even included in the constitution in 1999. At this moment only a few countries are speaking out against the inclusion of nuclear power in the EU taxonomy and only a majority vote of member states or a majority vote in the EU Parliament against the legal act could prevent it (which seems unlikely). This decision whether these technologies will be included does not automatically mean that they are now immediately building new nuclear power plants, but this inclusion into the taxonomy paves the way for more investments coming in the direction of nuclear energy. Now to prevent all this, the Austrian Climate Ministry intends to take legal action against the EU Commission due to the planned inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU taxonomy, and some experts claim that this could be successful, as courts could end up suspending the proposal. Taking this matter to the highest levels of justice could buy valuable time for renewables to make a greater impact.

The nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf, which was never put in use. Now the ground is used to produce energy with photovoltaic plants! Copyright: EVN

Do we really need nuclear energy for clean electricity?

CO2 is the real danger to the climate, so politicians could be tempted to pursue nuclear energy as a quick fix to reach climate goals faster, but it’s not a long-term solution. Although quick is to be seen as a relative term, since the construction of new nuclear power plants takes on average 5-10 years. Nuclear energy is relatively clean, but the nuclear waste that has to be stored in miles-deep mines in specialized containers is an environmental impact that is difficult to put a price tag on. Nuclear waste management is a particularly difficult topic, since radioactive Uranium has a radioactive half-life of more than 700 million years. Planning a safe storage method for this amount of time is near-impossible, which is why no final storage solution exists at this point in time and it is accepted that eventually even the specialized containers will leak. We believe that experts that claim that nuclear energy is needed for reaching net zero are just thinking in the here and now. There is an energy future that does not rely on dangerous nuclear technology – but on a wide implementation and decentralized use of solar and wind energy, which is stored and distributed intelligently and used efficiently.

To be fair, renewable energy took some hits recently, as the rising commodity prices and freight costs are a burden on the production of wind turbines, solar panels and battery storage, which nevertheless remain the cheapest forms of electricity generation. But we are certain that as soon as the market stabilizes, components will again be broadly available again at normal prices. At the same time, the recent sharp rise in electricity prices has made PV systems and storage even more appealing by shortening the amortization periods for large and medium-sized PV systems. In 2021, about 290 GW of renewable energy capacity was added to global energy production and in the same year renewables were already responsible for almost 40% of electricity production in the EU.

Clearly major challenges need to be overcome to continue to raise this share, like expanding technology for storing and balancing energy within the system and establishing locally organized energy communities. But here at neoom, we think that already within a couple of years, energy sources that are both sustainable and renewable will be commonplace in most countries and the ‘risk reactor’ in Temelín and nuclear energy in general will become a memory of the past.

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