Countries change nuclear policies in response to Ukraine war

January 6, 2023, 7:09AMNuclear News

As a direct result of the war in Ukraine, several countries have changed their policies on nuclear energy—even those with long-standing nuclear phase-out plans. This February will mark one year since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, leading to ongoing war and turning pandemic-era energy shortages into a global energy crisis. Spiking gas prices and concerns about electricity supply during the cold winter months have thrown many governments into a frenzy as they try to ease the impact on their citizens.

Countries in the process of phasing out their nuclear power had been prepared to increase their reliance on natural gas. But as Russia supplies 40 percent of the European Union’s natural gas, nations with no reliable alternative now face sky-high energy prices—even energy poverty. Across Europe and beyond, nuclear power plants slated for permanent closure have been given second chances to shore up energy supply. Nuclear power has also claimed a bigger spotlight in countries’ strategies for energy independence.

Germany: Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in September that Germany would extend the life of two of its three remaining operating reactors through the winter amid energy security concerns, thereby delaying the country’s post-Fukushima plan to become the first industrial power to abandon its nuclear program entirely. The three plants—Isar, Neckarwestheim, and Emsland—had been scheduled to close by the end of 2022. (Germany previously closed the Brokdorf, Grohnde, and Gundremmingen plants at the end of 2021.) Less than a month later, Scholz issued a new order to extend the lives of all three plants until mid-April, overriding the previous compromise with Green Party to shut down one plant and keep the two others on standby, to be used if needed.

Prior to the war, Germany relied heavily on Russian natural gas. Last August Russia cut off the Nord Stream 1 undersea pipeline that supplied gas to Germany, causing a scramble to shore up reserves for winter. Germany has even resorted to restarting coal-fired stations despite its effort to move away from coal.

Once a nuclear powerhouse, Germany had been home to 20 light water reactors, which came on line during the 1970s and ’80s. These plants never received their full 60-year operational lifetimes, with many closing directly after then chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a nuclear phase-out plan in 2011. A December Nuclear Newswire article noted that if the plants had remained operational, they would have provided more than 30 percent of the country’s power and eliminated its dependence on Russian fossil fuel exports.

Japan: After the 2011 accident at Fukushima Daichii, Japan swore it would completely phase out its nuclear power generation. But considering the Ukraine war, the country has approved a plan to revive its use of nuclear energy, restarting as many of its reactors as possible and extending the operating lifetimes of aging reactors beyond 60 years. Development of advanced reactors is also part of the plan.

According to a paper that outlines the new policy, nuclear power serves “an important role as a carbon-free baseload energy source in achieving supply stability and carbon neutrality.” Japanese citizens suffered repeated blackouts and escalating electric bills in 2022, but the silver lining is that support for nuclear is once again on the rise in Japan.

Belgium: Indecisive Belgium has waffled in its support of nuclear in recent years, but recently announced its intent to extend the lives of its two newest reactors, Doel-4 and Tihange-3, by 10 years in response to the energy crunch in Europe. Doel-3 was still shut down this past September, in accordance with the country’s plan to phase out nuclear by 2025. Tihange-2 will soon follow, with a scheduled legal closing date of February 1.

In 2003, Belgium passed legislation limiting the operational lives of its seven reactors to 40 years and prohibiting the construction of new reactors. The government afterward extended the lives of its three oldest units, though the 2025 phase-out date remained in place (and was most recently affirmed in December 2021—when the mixed message that the government would fund research on small modular reactors was also delivered).

The latest action to extend Doel-4 and Tihange-3 is a partial reversal of Belgium’s phase-out plan, which had also called for construction of more gas-fired units to make up for the lost nuclear generation

Britain: Last July, Britain approved construction of its 3.2-GW Sizewell C nuclear power plant. The EDF Energy–owned plant in Suffolk, England, will consist of twin 1,600-Mwe EPRs and will be built next to Sizewell B, a 1,198-Mwe pressurized water reactor. In November, the government announced an investment of £679 million (about $828 million) in the proposed project.

The U.K. also made ambitious plans for new nuclear capacity in a new energy security strategy it drew up last April in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The plan is designed to boost Britain’s energy independence and address climate change by building eight new reactors and 16 SMRs.

France: The utility Électricité de France committed to hurriedly restarting all 56 of its reactors for winter to guarantee energy supply and exports to its neighbors seeking alternatives to Russian gas. Of those reactors, 32 had been closed for maintenance or technical issues. France was aiming to restart at least 27 reactors by the end of 2022 but has experienced delays. Still, the country is racing to reopen its fleet.

As early as 2014, the French government was working to reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear energy, which provides about 70 percent of its electricity. Despite draft documents containing plans to reduce nuclear’s share of the energy market, President Macron declared in February 2022 that France would build at least six new reactors. “What our country needs, and the conditions are there, is the rebirth of France’s nuclear industry,” said Macron in the announcement.

Rethinking nuclear power: Across the world, many governments are considering introducing nuclear power in the interest of energy security. In Italy, right-wing parties are pushing for a rethink of the country’s long-standing nuclear ban. (Italy shuttered its reactors after the 1986 Chernobyl accident.) And Poland has recently signed a partnership with U.S.-based Westinghouse in its $40 billion inaugural civil nuclear project.

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