Nuclear Power, Solution to the Energy Crisis?

The energy crisis continues. Many countries, such as Germany and Japan, are turning to nuclear power.
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Between the energy crisis and climate objectives, the atom is experiencing a revival of interest in several countries, including Japan and Germany, although they do not share the same ambitions.

Eleven years after the Fukushima disaster, which had given a serious brake to nuclear power, this energy sees the wind turning, and industrialists and pro-atomic politicians do not hide their optimism. Eminently symbolic: Japan’s own intention to eventually start construction of new power plants.

The government announced on Wednesday that it is considering future “new generation reactors with new safety mechanisms”, in the name of carbon neutrality but also in the face of soaring electricity and gas prices, which have affected the archipelago since the war in Ukraine.

For the time being, Tokyo is considering restarting some sites and extending their life span, a sharp turn for a country that last year got less than 4% of its electricity from nuclear power – up from 30% before 2011, produced then by 54 reactors.

The project benefits from a more favorable context, while the public is worried about shortages and measures its dependence on gas, oil and coal imports.

Other countries on the path to disengagement have done an about-face, such as Belgium, which wants to extend two reactors by ten years.

In Germany, which was to close the last three plants at the end of 2022, a taboo was broken when the Minister for Climate, the ecologist Robert Habeck, judged in February that the question of a postponement could be “relevant” in the context of the war in Ukraine.

Berlin is waiting for new assessments of its electricity system in the light of winter requirements before making a decision.

“Prolonging nuclear power is not a solution to the energy crisis,” objects Gerald Neubauer, energy expert at Greenpeace Germany, who argues that the efficiency of replacing Russian gas is limited: “Gas is mainly used for heating, not for electricity.

Climate argument

But for Nicolas Berghmans, an expert at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (Iddri), “extending power plants can help”.

“Europe is in a very difficult energy situation, with several overlapping crises: the problem of Russian gas supply, the drought that has reduced the capacity of dams, the low availability of French nuclear power… so all the levers count.

The sector had already gained momentum with the climate argument, as nuclear energy does not directly emit CO2. The atom has thus increased its share in many scenarios of the IPCC, the UN climate experts.

While a boom in electrification is announced, in transport, industry or building, several countries have announced their wish to develop their nuclear infrastructures: first of all China, which already has the largest number of reactors, Poland, the Czech Republic or India, which want to reduce their dependence on coal.

France, Great Britain and even the Netherlands have stated their ambitions, and even in the United States Joe Biden’s investment plan encourages the sector.

While nuclear power, present in 32 countries, provides 10% of the world’s electricity production, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) raised its projections in September 2021, for the first time since Fukushima: it now expects a doubling of installed capacity by 2050 in the most favorable scenario.

However, the IPCC scientists recognize that “the future deployment of nuclear power may be constrained by societal preferences”: the subject divides opinion, because of the risks of catastrophic accidents or the still unresolved problem of waste.

Some countries, such as New Zealand, remain opposed to it, and this division was also expressed in Brussels in the debate on whether or not to include it in the list of “green” activities.

There is also the question of the ability to build new reactors at controlled costs and within controlled timeframes.

“We are talking about medium-term solutions, which will not solve the issue of market tensions”, just as they will come too late, after 2035, to solve the climate issue alone, which can, on the other hand, benefit immediately from the “industrial dynamics” of renewable energies.

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