There is increasing fragmenation in what could otherwise become a more coherent European energy plan.
The European Union is positioning itself to become a global leader in a low-carbon energy transition as several economic heavyweights on the continent have pledged to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels in coming years. A case in point is Germany, which is set to shutter its coal-fired plants within two decades.
At the same time, however, Europe’s largest economy is also turning its back on nuclear energy, even as several of Germany’s eastern neighbors are moving in the opposite direction. Are these divergent views over the role of nuclear energy leading to fragmentation in what could otherwise be more coherent European energy plans?
Hungary, for example, recently signed a deal with Russia’s state-owned nuclear company Rosatom to build two new reactors at its nuclear power plant in Paks, near Budapest. Nuclearelectrica, which operates neighboring Romania’s nuclear plant in Cernavoda, likewise wants to acquire two new reactors with assistance from China’s state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation. Bulgaria is also seeking outside help to restart its stalled nuclear power plant in the town of Belene on the Danube River, which serves as its border with Romania, with that help likely to come from either China or Russia.
Eyeing an opportunity for nuclear new builds in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and China are filling in the void left by their Western European counterparts, who are loath to boost nuclear capacity next door for ideological reasons.
Rosatom sees Europe as part of an already successful global export strategy. The Russian company is exporting advanced nuclear technology worldwide, and the company lists 36 international projects currently under development; many of these are based in developing nations with power needs which are expected to soar in coming decades. Many are realigning their domestic power generation plans to rely less on dirty coal-fired plants and switch to cleaner energy sources, including nuclear.
Across much of Europe, however, the fault lines between national energy plans and foreign policy questions are beginning to show. Lithuania’s government, for one, has asked neighboring Belarus to convert its newly built nuclear power plant at Astravets to natural gas, which would be provided by Lithuania itself via a planned gas link to Poland.
Lithuania says the Rosatom-backed plant, which is located across the border and is near its capital, Vilnius, hasn’t complied with all the necessary safety standards set by the European Union. Belarus disputes the claim that the plant isn’t entirely safe, and the European Union carried out its own stress test – ultimately finding that Astravets lives up to its requirements.
The Lithuanian counteroffer shows a disturbing willingness to opt for fossil fuels. Burning natural gas may be cleaner than burning coal, yet it is still more environmentally harmful than nuclear power because natural gas plants still contribute markedly to air pollution.
The proposal, however, is likely rooted not so much in safety or environmental concerns as geopolitics. Lithuania’s government is not happy with Russian influence in the region, and the Baltic nation’s outgoing prime minister Saulius Skvernelis implied as much in a recent statement: “It’s up to Belarus to make a choice: to keep on having an energy sector which depends on the policies of a single country, or to make a strategic change,” Skvernelis said.
Skvernelis’s framing of the issue, however, ignores an important distinction between nuclear fuel and its fossil fuel alternatives. Unlike natural gas, which has indeed been the subject of fierce battles between Moscow, the EU, and the United States, experts like Kamen Kraev have pointed out there is no precedent for “weaponizing” nuclear fuel supplies. The high level of international transparency and cooperation governing the nuclear industry makes such a move seem even more unrealistic.
Similar fault lines are emerging well within the EU’s borders as well. The Czech Republic is planning to expand its nuclear power capacity by replacing a Soviet-era rector with a new 2,500MW reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant, which lies 50 kilometers north of its border with Austria.
Both Austria and neighboring Germany, however, are opposed to nuclear power on principle and have used their influence at the EU level to try and stymie the project. The Czech government is nonetheless asking the European Union to waive strict EU regulations on financing for new nuclear builds. If Prague fails to persuade Brussels, the Central European country could well turn elsewhere to strike a deal.
With their blanket rejection of nuclear energy, are countries like Germany, Austria, and Lithuania jeopardizing Europe’s chances of successfully transitioning to low-carbon energy fast enough and on a large enough scale? With prominent environmentalists insisting nuclear power is vital to saving the planet, these political machinations could ultimately carry a higher price tag than the projects they oppose.