Some countries are returning to nuclear power despite the risks

If ever one needed a reminder of why nuclear power remains a highly controversial and polarizing technology, it’s happening right now in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. The country’s largest nuclear power plant — under Russian occupation in an area of intense ground combat — is currently in the process of being entirely shut down to avoid a meltdown. But despite this demonstration of nuclear risk, the war and its rippling economic effects have persuaded several countries to keep nuclear power as part of their energy mix.

Similar concerns have driven renewed interest in coal power. But while burning coal is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, keeping nuclear plants in operation could help reduce those emissions. Coming on the heels of a summer of catastrophic droughts, heat waves and flooding around the world, that climate advantage may also be prompting some policymakers to give nuclear a second look.

In Japan, site of the world’s most recent nuclear power disaster, the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced in late August that the government would restart several idled nuclear plants and develop plans to construct new, more advanced reactors. This is a dramatic reversal of the country’s post-Fukushima decision to abandon nuclear power.

Germany’s government recently announced it will keep its last three nuclear plants going, a reversal of a popular nuclear phaseout policy also initiated after the Fukushima accident. Fears of energy shortages this winter prompted Germany’s latest move, as the Russian government, incensed by European sanctions and military support for Ukraine, has now completely cut gas exports to Germany via the controversial Nord Stream Pipeline. Belgium, which had also planned a complete nuclear shutdown in the coming years, will be extending the life span of two of its reactors by 10 years.

The United States, less reliant on Russian gas and oil, does not face the same direct economic fallout from the war. But here too, nuclear is getting a second look amid high energy prices. On Sept. 1, California lawmakers approved Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to keep open the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which provides nearly 10 percent of the state’s power and was due to be shuttered in 2025. Concerns about power shortages and blackouts amid increasingly punishing heat waves, as the state works to transition away from fossil fuels over the next two decades, prompted the move.

Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at George Washington University and board member at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, noted that just as disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have driven public opposition to nuclear power, it has gained popularity in past moments of uncertainty about energy supplies.

“I’ll be curious to see if this panic about energy scarcity has a boosting effect for nuclear energy,” she told Grid. “The oil crisis in the ‘70s was what convinced France and Japan to go all in on nuclear. They really put all their eggs in that basket.”

Could the combination of the war and climate fears bring an end to the post-Fukushima era? That’s far from clear. In some countries, this moment is more likely a brief detour on the long road away from nuclear power. But given the nature of nuclear power as a technology, decisions made today could have economic and environmental consequences for decades to come.

Japan: Fukushima and everything after

As the only country to suffer the effects of an atomic bomb attack in wartime, Japan’s citizens for decades had what some observers called a “nuclear allergy.” When a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, was contaminated by fallout from a U.S. nuclear test in the Marshall Islands in 1954, it sparked a wave of anti-nuclear activism (and inspired the movie “Godzilla.”)

But the allergy gradually faded. Because of its geography, Japan has to import the vast majority of its fossil fuels and the postwar economic boom left it hungry for new energy sources. The country’s first nuclear power plant opened in 1966 and the industry grew over the following decades, getting an additional boost from the oil crises of the 1970s and concerns about air pollution in the 1980s.

By 2010, Japan was the third largest nuclear power generator in the world after the United States and France. Nuclear power accounted for 27 percent of Japan’s electricity generation and the government planned to raise it to 50 percent by 2030. Then came Fukushima, and that number plunged to nearly zero as public sentiment turned sharply against nuclear energy and the country idled its reactors. In 2012, the government announced plans to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2040.

Japan was already backing away from that plan, which had led to spiking energy costs and a steep rise in carbon emissions, as early as four years after the disaster. The first reactor was restarted in 2015. Ten of the countries 33 reactors had been reactivated by the time Russia invaded Ukraine, though only six were operational. Japan is the world’s second largest importer of liquefied natural gas and while only 9 percent of that gas came from Russia, the island nation is extremely vulnerable to shocks in global energy markets.

At the end of March, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, a Nikkei poll showed that for the first time since 2011, a majority of the Japanese public supported greater use of nuclear power. “I think the recent shift in public opinion seems to have given the elected officials in Japan little comfort that growing share of voters are open to nuclear as a resource,” Jane Nakano, senior fellow and expert in Asian energy and climate issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Grid.

Kishida showed that comfort on Aug. 24, announcing a plan under which up to 17 reactors would be operational by the summer of 2023, the operating life of existing plants would be extended, and the construction of new “next generation” nuclear power plants would be considered.

In addition to price and supply concerns, Japan’s tentative reembrace of nuclear power is also motivated by the fact that it is currently well off track from its comparatively ambitious climate goal: reducing carbon emissions by 46 percent from 2013 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.

Germany: A history of zigzagging on nuclear

Germany built its first nuclear power plant in 1961, and the country’s use of the technology grew steadily, especially after the oil shocks of the early 1970s. But nuclear power has always been particularly contentious there — and to a greater extent than in other countries, opposition to nuclear has been at the core of Germany’s environmental movement. In 1975, tens of thousands of anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists and concerned local residents occupied the construction site of a proposed nuclear power plant, forcing the plant’s cancellation and catalyzing the global anti-nuclear movement. The Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, as well as ongoing concerns about the processing and storage of nuclear waste, intensified the movement in the following decades.

The country has zigzagged on nuclear power several times. In 2000, the left-wing government led by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced plans to gradually phase out nuclear power. Then in 2010, his successor, Chancellor Angela Merkel, pledged to extend the life of the country’s reactors, sparking the largest anti-nuclear protests since Chernobyl. Merkel herself reversed course after the Fukushima accident, announcing a full phaseout date of 2022, which she acknowledged would be a “herculean task.”

At the time, the country operated 17 nuclear reactors from which it obtained about a quarter of its electricity. Today, it’s down to just three, accounting for about 8 percent of its electricity. In recent years, Merkel has received heavy international criticism for the decision, which has been blamed for Germany’s ongoing reliance on coal, as well as Russian-supplied natural gas.

Then came the war in Ukraine, which made these Russian supplies no longer politically tenable. Before the war, only 40 percent of Germans supported keeping the country’s nuclear plants operating past the 2022 deadline. After the invasion, that increased to 68 percent.

Facing a winter of gas shortages and high prices, the government now plans to keep two of its remaining three reactors open past Dec. 31. Despite the favorable polling, this will be a particularly tough pill to swallow for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition partners, the Green Party, which was born out of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s and has the issue in its political DNA. German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, a member of the Green Party, has insisted that the move is temporary and that the post-Fukushima phaseout plan is still in place.

Jan-Henrik Meyer, an environmental policy researcher at Germany’s Max Planck Institute, thinks it’s unlikely the country will reverse course at this point. “We are so close to the final phaseout,” he told Grid. “All these plans are completely written, preparations have been taken, job contracts have been arranged so that people will retire early. The industry has already very much already given up on this.”

And while it may make sense to keep current plants operating as a response to Europe’s current energy crisis, that doesn’t necessarily translate into building new ones. “If you’re reliant on Russian gas and you don’t have anything else to use, nuclear may look good,” Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Grid. “But the problem is that you can’t build a nuclear plant very quickly, so it’s not going to fill the gap. It’s not like you can just flip a switch and turn them back on.”

It’s also worth noting that nuclear power doesn’t necessarily solve the Russia problem. Just last week, the Germany environment ministry admitted that it had “no legal grounds” but to stop a shipment of Russian uranium destined for France’s nuclear plants from being processed in Germany, since the fuel is not covered by current sanctions.

An emissions quandary

Nuclear power has spawned a seemingly never-ending argument in climate change circles over its role in a transition to a low- or zero-emissions economy. Some scientists and activists insist that renewable energy can fill the world’s energy needs comfortably, without any of the risk inherent to nuclear fission; but other analyses demonstrate a significant role for nuclear energy if there is any hope of actually meeting the Paris Agreement goals of 1.5 or even 2.0 degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively).

In the near term, the recent moves to reembrace the energy source — or at least postpone its departure — will keep emissions down by preventing the use of coal or natural gas to replace it. From a broader perspective, the trend reflects the growing concern over the world’s emissions trajectory, which has stubbornly refused to bend toward true climate progress.

“Especially in the climate context, people are arguing, you know, maybe it’s not worth investing to build a new reactor, but if we already have one, and it’s operating fine, it’s past passing all the inspections — why don’t we just keep it running?” said Sonja Schmid, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who focuses on nuclear science and policy and nuclear nonproliferation.

The United States still gets around 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Though it is less exposed to energy disruptions from the war in Ukraine, there is also a trend here to keep reactors running longer than planned. California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which sits along the picturesque coastline in San Luis Obispo County, was scheduled to retire at the end of its 40-year operating license in 2025. It had been deemed too expensive to modernize and continue operations.

But more recently, a series of heat waves and other climate change-related disasters have swung the tides on the state’s only nuclear plant, with lawmakers voting at the end of August to loan its operator $1.6 billion and keep it running through 2030. The third largest power generating station in the western United States, capable of powering 1.6 million homes, Diablo Canyon’s closure would knock a huge chunk of zero-carbon power offline. An analysis from MIT in 2021 estimated that replacing its output would require 90,000 acres of solar panels and that operating it through 2035 would save $2.6 billion in power system costs and provide a hedge against brownouts that a warming world can provoke.

Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said his organization was opposed to keeping the Diablo Canyon plant open thanks to safety risks and other concerns, but more broadly, climate change offers a strong argument in favor of continued nuclear operation. “I think existing nuclear is very important, especially in the near term, and it could be in the longer term as well,” he told Grid. “But there’s a lot more uncertainty around that.”

Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, according to some analyses, will require that existing nuclear plants continue to operate at least in the near term. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists co-authored by Clemmer modeled pathways toward decarbonization in the U.S. last year, and found that use of nuclear power would decline slowly, to 15 percent of power generation by 2030, on its way down to six percent in 2050. Clemmer said he does not anticipate any meaningful new nuclear plant construction, with the consistent cost overruns and yearslong delays now common in the industry making it impractical.

Schmid agreed that new nuclear plants appear unlikely to play a big role in the near-term climate crisis. “There is no reactor that is coming online on schedule and under budget,” she said. “Everything is delayed and not just by a few months or weeks, but by years, sometimes decades,” and virtually always comes in dramatically over initial cost estimates.

Globally, pathways to a limit of 1.5 degrees of warming better resembles Japan’s reembrace of nuclear energy than the slow, obsolescence-induced decline of the U.S. or Germany’s rocky road to retirement. Among dozens of scenarios modeled in the U.N. climate science body’s report focused on keeping warming to 1.5 degrees, the median result for nuclear power showed more than a doubling of overall output, though its share of the total energy supply drops slightly. There is substantial variation among those scenarios, though, which the report blames on the role of high variation of “societal preferences” surrounding nuclear power — a factor broadly reflected by the flip-flops in Japan, Germany and elsewhere.

“In the near term, we need to accelerate the retirement of coal and actually reduce our reliance on natural gas. They’re the things that are driving the climate change,” Clemmer said. “If we’re also shutting down nuclear plants during that time frame, it’s just going to make it that much harder to stay on track with our emission targets.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

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