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Challenging world views by our team of spectators

Recycling the Dutch nuclear energy debate

13 Nov 2018 - 14:34

The circular economy is an important element of the transition towards more sustainable societies worldwide. Its aim is to make optimal use of all resources, not only ‘from cradle to grave’, but to give resources that have come to the end of their lifetime a second, third or yet another life by recycling or reusing them.

Sometimes you see that politicians want to expand this important idea also to the debate about sustainability. That happened recently in the Netherlands, where Dutch politician Klaas Dijkhoff (Liberals – VVD) once more reopened a debate that has already had many lifecycles– nuclear energy. He argued that nuclear energy in the Netherlands, next to solar and wind energy, would be an indispensable carbon-free energy source for the future.

It is right that internationally, nuclear energy is a far from negligible option for the future

Was he right? It is true that solar and wind energy will not be enough for a carbon-free energy transition. Not only do they require a lot of scarce space, which can only be partly solved by locating wind turbines offshore, but they are not available at all times. Back-up capacity will therefore be required for a continuous balance between electricity supply and demand. In theory, this back-up could be provided by nuclear energy, although it is far from sure that such a flexible provision of back-up electricity would make a business case for any nuclear energy investor.

It is also right that internationally, nuclear energy is a far from negligible option for the future. While Germany is in the middle of a phasing-out of nuclear energy, the United Kingdom is currently constructing a new reactor, Belgium is still heavily dependent on its seven current reactors and France is only considering to marginally reduce its very high existing share of nuclear energy in the electricity mix in the future. Worldwide, there are currently some 50 reactors under construction, with even more being planned. These will be situated not only in countries like Russia, China, India and Korea, but also for instance in Finland, Slovakia and Japan.

The debate on new nuclear power plants in the Netherlands was buried for more than a decade in a compromise that everybody could live with

In the Netherlands, however, the situation is more complicated. In the past there were several controversial public debates about the future of nuclear energy, which left supporters and opponents heavily divided. As a result, one of two Dutch nuclear reactors was closed in 1997 after large public demonstrations and blockades, while the other nuclear power plant was upgraded to continue operation until 2033.

The debate on new nuclear power plants in the Netherlands was buried for more than a decade in a compromise that everybody could live with. This compromise stated that any private investor willing to construct a new reactor could apply for a permit. Initially there were two candidates that were considering to do so, but both of them stopped their efforts in 2012, arguing that there were neither the right market conditions nor sufficient public support for a new plant.

Since then, the public debate on nuclear energy in the Netherlands seemed to be closed. It appeared clear to everybody that in reality, nuclear energy will never be able to compete in electricity markets without prolonged governmental support. Such support would not only have to include - as in the past - guarantees that investors would not have to bear the full costs of nuclear waste storage after decommissioning the reactor nor the full insurance costs for a nuclear disaster. Future governmental support probably also would have to include long-term electricity purchase agreements to cover at least part of the investment risks in a low-carbon energy market. With public opinion being as divided as it is in the Netherlands, no investor in the Netherlands would therefore be wise to invest in an option that would require the continuous support of many consecutive governments.

Nothing has changed in this situation. Did Dijkhoff therefore add anything substantial to the public debate on energy transition in the Netherlands? No. He promoted an option of which he already knew beforehand that it will split society for the sake of short-term political gains and cannot count on the necessary long-term societal support for its successful implementation in the future. Recycling an old debate without new arguments, as Dijkhoff did, therefore in reality is a waste of energy.