Meeting climate targets requires nuclear energy renaissance
Series Sustainability & Economy

Meeting climate targets requires nuclear energy renaissance

10 Mar 2021 - 11:08
Photo: Nuclear power plant cooling tower.© Pixabay
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Both Dutch and EU climate policy goals are ambitious with climate neutrality (“no greenhouse gasses”) by 2050 as the ultimate target. Is this goal achievable without nuclear energy? So far, three articles have been presented on the issue in this Clingendael Spectator series on the future of Dutch nuclear energy. In this fourth episode, Professor Raphael Heffron evaluates the views of these experts and argues that the Netherlands needs a mix of nuclear and renewable energy.

Nuclear energy is returning to the policy debate in the Netherlands. The first three articles of this series represent three slightly different views, but the evidence is clear: nuclear energy has to be considered in the Dutch energy mix.

In the first article, Pieter Boot calls for the return of nuclear energy to the debate on the future of energy in the Netherlands. In episode two, Michael Shellenberger advances an argument for an ambitious nuclear energy program. Meanwhile, in the third piece, Michal Onderco and Darren McCauley are anti-nuclear and state that there is too much politics around developing nuclear energy again.

There is no doubt that as a developed country, the Netherlands has an obligation to be a leader on climate change issues

Pieter Boot convincingly puts forward the argument that nuclear energy can play a vital role in Dutch energy policy. There is a clear case for thinking about energy policy beyond 2030. With a rising energy demand, developing nuclear energy can play a role in satisfying this demand in the future. Further, nuclear energy can maintain some low-carbon diversification in the Dutch energy mix.

There is no doubt that as a developed country, the Netherlands has an obligation to be a leader on climate change issues, and that surely necessitates nuclear energy being part of the debate. Indeed, when thinking of energy and climate ambitions by 2050 and 2060, nuclear energy should again be considered as an option.

An ambitious plan for building new nuclear energy reactors is advanced by Michael Shellenberger. There is reason behind this ambition, evidently when he points towards the effect of neighbouring countries Belgium and Germany closing down their nuclear power stations.

Heffron -Windmill and the nuclear power plant cooling tower in Doel, Belgium. Wikimediacommons
Windmill and the nuclear power plant cooling tower in Doel, Belgium. © Wikimediacommons

In Belgium’s case they are going to subsidise gas, while in Germany they are subsidising a long phase-out of coal until 2038 (it is unclear what will replace coal after that). Building ten nuclear reactors will result in new jobs and investment, creating potential for making the Netherlands an energy exporter.

In contrast to Boot and Shellenberger, Michal Onderco and Darren McCauley paint a negative picture of nuclear energy. They highlight political problems as the key reason not to go nuclear in the Netherlands.

Nuclear energy many have risks, but developing any energy source comes with risks

Onderco and McCauley identify political issues with costs, local opposition, European neighbours, waste storage issues, national regulation and international security. Finally, they discuss the imprint of nuclear energy on society and conclude that society should not revisit it.

Nuclear energy is back on the policy agenda
I think the case for nuclear energy being back on the policy agenda in the Netherlands is clear. Nuclear energy many have risks, but developing any energy source comes with risks. There is no energy choice that will come without political problems and public opposition.

However, the decision not to consider nuclear energy as an option is fallacious if climate targets are to be achieved. Nuclear energy is a low-carbon energy source and can provide stable baseload electricity. The current Dutch energy system is overloaded with fossil fuels, and ambition and action need to be demonstrated so as the country meets its 2030 climate and energy goals that it will disclose later at the annual United Nations climate change conference in November.1

It is important to address one of the anti-nuclear activists’ notions, that I feel is often misguided, which is to state the unresolved waste issues. And indeed, Onderco and McCauley fall into the same trap, and state the long-life problems of nuclear waste and politics of decommissioning. Of course, these are problems, but it is the same for all energy sources, such as oil, gas and coal which also produce long-life waste.

Heffron- experts visiting the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 27 November 2013. © Flickr - IAEA Imagebank
Experts visiting the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on 27 November 2013. © Flickr / IAEA Imagebank

What is needed is more of a comparative analysis of the issues that accompany different energy sources. The waste from oil, gas and coal in the form of carbon dioxide emissions is killing the planet we live on. We are already under threat from runaway climate change as a result of these emissions; this is where human efforts to mitigate and/or prevent climate change will no longer be able to stop the effects of climate change as a result of going beyond a 2-degree temperature rise.2

Additionally, the decommissioning of old coal mines or offshore oil and gas rigs has not happened in many countries at all. Further, the cost of decommissioning these fossil fuels has been largely transferred to the taxpayer in many countries – in particular in the United Kingdom.3 Rather than highlighting problems with nuclear energy, let us improve its technology further and reduce waste issues.

I would ask the anti-nuclear brigade: what are the options?

Hence, I would ask the anti-nuclear brigade: what are the options? Shellenberger highlights the direction that Germany and Belgium are going. Belgium is going for subsidised gas, while incredibly Germany, the leading nation of the European Union, is remaining in coal until 2038 and even subsidising it until then.

Indeed, for Germany, the marketing team of their energy policy should be commended. Their renewable energy dream through the Energiewende policy ignores the subsidies which are installed for their coal sector. Further, where are the anti-nuclear politicians in Germany and their green credentials, while coal continues to burn and impact the health of the world?

Nuclear energy and climate change ambitions
Politics and nuclear energy will always be an issue as long as civil and military use remains. But it is worth recalling that the expertise required for both is very different. Further, there will be geopolitical issues as a result of some countries taking an anti-nuclear stance, such as Austria and perhaps Germany in the EU.

Nevertheless, in today’s world, not acting against climate change is a far bigger issue. The Netherlands and many other countries need to radically alter their energy mix, and nuclear energy offers that option. A nuclear renaissance needs to happen to truly deliver on climate change.4

Heffron - Nuclear power plant. Markus Distelrath - Pixabay
A Dutch vessel passes a nuclear power plant in Germany. © Markus Distelrath / Pixabay

The Netherlands has a role to play in itself, in the EU and globally. As a leading developed nation, they have an obligation to be low-carbon. The Netherlands has committed to change, and yet in the famous legal case from 2019 (Urgenda Foundation versus State of the Netherlands) the Dutch government acknowledged its actions are insufficient.

The Dutch government lost this legal case, as it was declared that there are human rights obligations paired with meeting climate change objectives. This Urgenda case is significant in that it makes this link between human rights violations and non-action around carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change.5

Like the current pandemic where we need new vaccines to solve the problem

Indeed, whatever the political impediments are to nuclear energy, the Dutch government has a duty of care to its population, also to those in its overseas territories. Going for nuclear energy is responding to that duty of care, and it can also accelerate the development of a low-carbon economy in the Netherlands. Furthermore, new jobs will be created and the Dutch society will become healthier with less air pollution.

Speaking of health, the Netherlands and other European countries need to realise that the old carbon dioxide emitting technology has to come to an end. Rather, like the current pandemic where we need new vaccines to solve the problem, the energy sector needs new solutions.

For the Netherlands, that is a mix of nuclear and renewable energy. Just the same as we would not permit old vaccines to solve COVID-19, why would we accept old world technology to solve our energy and climate targets? Subsidies for gas in Belgium and for coal in Germany are not the way forward.

Nuclear energy technology may not satisfy everyone today, but society should work towards improving it and making it more sustainable. It is more important to replace the energy sources killing the planet and causing human rights violations. Nuclear energy should firmly be considered on the pathway for achieving a just transition to a low-carbon Dutch society.6 A nuclear renaissance beckons…

Authors

Raphael J Heffron
Professor for Global Energy Law & Sustainability at the University of Dundee