Surprised about European yo-yo policy with nuclear energy: ‘EU must take more control’

Europe must be climate neutral by 2050 and run entirely on renewable energy. But opinions are divided on the way there. The fact is that we cannot survive with sun and wind alone. After all, backup is needed when it is dark or when there is no wind and at the moment it is still expensive to store energy in batteries or hydrogen.

In the coming decades, Germany will focus on natural gas and for this purpose built a direct gas pipeline to Russia (Nord Stream 2). The decision to break with nuclear energy dates back to 2011, after the devastating disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Two plants were already disconnected last week, the remaining three that are still open will follow later this year. Belgium will take a similar step in 2025.

Every country for itself

The Netherlands wants to get rid of gas and build two new nuclear power stations, according to the coalition agreement. Over the next ten years, the new cabinet has reserved EUR 5 billion for this, of which EUR 500 million in the coming term of office. The current nuclear power plant in Borssele in Zeeland no longer has to close in 2033, even though it is older than those in neighboring countries.

Jan Leen Kloosterman, professor of nuclear reactor physics at TU Delft, finds it ‘very strange’ that countries are building nuclear power stations on one side of the border while closing on the other. “It is a pity that it has to be this way in Europe”, he sighs, “but the European member states are setting their own course. If a government withdraws the permit, there is little that can be done about it.”

All 27 member states deal with their own energy mix, explains Louise van Schaik of the Clingendael Institute, who specializes in the EU and climate issues. “That is laid down in European treaties.” However, she does not rule out the possibility that Brussels will have more say in this area in the long term. “There are more and more topics where the EU treaties start to get in the way.”

Paris Climate Agreement

Incidentally, on New Year’s Eve, the European Commission presented its provisional list of ‘green’ energy sources. This taxonomy includes both natural gas and nuclear energy. The list is intended to provide investors, such as pension funds, with clarity in the long term.

Catrinus Jepma, emeritus professor of Energy and Sustainability at the University of Groningen, also calls the contradictory steps taken by the EU countries ‘a bit strange’. “It would make more sense to make European policy for this.” Still, he understands that Germany and Belgium stick to their choices. “It would be strange to go back on that now, but I don’t know if they would decide the same now.”

Because a lot has changed in the past ten years, with the Paris climate agreement in 2015 as the highlight. At the time, it was decided that the average temperature increase should remain below 2 degrees. This resulted in European and national climate laws, which, among other things, promise to reduce CO2 emissions to zero within thirty years.

No second hand

Unlike with gas and coal, no CO2 is released when electricity is generated from nuclear energy. Greenhouse gases are only emitted during the extraction of uranium (the fuel in nuclear power plants), transport and construction. This makes nuclear energy forty times cleaner than gas, according to calculations by the UN climate panel IPCC. Only wind energy scores better.

Wouldn’t it then be much more efficient for the Netherlands to take over the operation of the Belgian and German nuclear power stations? Jepma thinks so, but then the countries must be open to it. “I would be surprised if Belgium and Germany wanted to keep the power stations on their territory.”

Dismantling an existing nuclear power plant, putting it on transport and rebuilding it here is in any case not an option, explains Kloosterman. “Dismantling a power station takes decades and for that you have to cut the power station into pieces on the spot. So you have to build a new one.”

Radioactive waste

The nuclear reactor physicist calls it a pity that Belgium and Germany are stopping nuclear energy. According to him, their power stations could have lasted for years. He thinks it is a good thing that the Netherlands is now choosing the nuclear path. “It is a wise choice. Without nuclear energy we will not achieve CO2-free in 2050.”

According to him, the problem of radioactive waste is temporary. Existing light water reactors only use 1 percent of the uranium, the rest remains as a residual product that must be stored. But the next generation of nuclear power plants has an efficiency of 100 percent, says Kloosterman. “They just burn the waste.”

His Groningen colleague professor Jepma also does not rule out the possibility of new nuclear power stations being built, but in small, flexible units, preferably on islands deep in the North Sea. Together with wind turbines, these can then produce green hydrogen, which in turn is transported to the mainland via the existing gas pipelines in the North Sea.

Investing in knowledge

Hydrogen, and in particular the sustainably generated variant, is seen as the fuel of the future, which can provide industry and heavy transport, among other things, with a clean alternative to oil or gas. The hydrogen can also be stored and converted into green electricity at windless and dark moments.

Van Schaik van Clingendael does point out that the Netherlands is largely dependent on foreign countries for the construction of nuclear power plants. According to her, there are only a handful of countries that have enough nuclear knowledge. “You don’t want countries like China or Russia to be able to turn off a power plant.”

That is precisely why part of the 500 million euros that Rutte IV wants to spend in the coming years must end up at educational institutions, says Delft professor Kloosterman. “If you seriously want to continue with nuclear energy, many more people need to be trained and much more knowledge is needed, also in the government.”

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