Why the Netherlands should choose nuclear energy
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? Not according to Michael Shellenberger. In part three of the Clingendael Spectator series on the future of Dutch nuclear energy, he explains how the launch of a nuclear energy programme would bring the Netherlands environmental, economic and political advantages.
The year 2020 has come and gone, leaving significant questions about the international agreements that bind together Europe. This year was meant to be the first checkpoint of climate policy progress since the Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016. Because the COVID-19 pandemic caused a downward demand shock in the transport and energy sectors, measuring ‘progress’ with emission numbers in 2020 will be less useful.
The next year of legal accountability for the Netherlands and the European Union (EU) will be 2030, before the major commitment of 95 per cent decarbonisation by 2050. At the same time, economists are united in calling for a targeted fiscal stimulus to counterbalance the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which of course included temporarily suppressed carbon emissions. To that end, the EU has committed nearly 550 billion euros – a 30 per cent share of its 6-year recovery package – to green projects.
Nuclear energy in European perspective
This economic and environmental uncertainty comes amidst the geopolitical change brought by the exit of one of two nuclear powers from the EU. With the departure of the United Kingdom, Germany now leads an EU energy consensus. Scholars have already noted Germany’s aggressive use of its own anti-nuclear, pro-renewable Energiewende as foreign policy. German industry has taken the cue, with Siemens reorienting around renewable and fossil fuel technology.1
The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that when true supply shortages of even life-or-death commodities emerge, it is every country for itself
What might Europe look like in an Energiewende-exported world? If the EU continues its grid interconnection, allowing for larger cross-border electricity flows, perhaps the intermittency of renewables can be solved – after all, as the old saying goes, is it not always windy somewhere? Hydrogen pipelines might be able to connect European countries and fill the rest of the energy supply gap. Maybe these pipelines and transmission will be a force for unifying Europe.
Most of the time, unfortunately, all of northern Europe experiences the same macro patterns in weather, meaning the Netherlands, Belgium, and the northern provinces of Germany all experience renewable energy collapses at the same hours. Moreover, dangerous policy decisions by the Netherlands’ neighbouring countries mean that energy supply shortages are years away.
For example, Belgium recently reaffirmed its nuclear phase-out by 2025, in essence halving its electricity supply to replace its cheapest source of power, nuclear, with expensive (and subsidised) natural gas generation. Germany is only avoiding the same capacity shortages that plagued California in August 2020 and Japan in early 2021 by delaying its coal phase-out while pursuing greatly expanded gas imports from Russia.
The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that when true supply shortages of even life-or-death commodities emerge, it is every country for itself. In a matter of vital electricity supplies, national politicians in Europe will make the easy, even ethically-justifiable choice to protect themselves before their neighbours.
An investment in just ten nuclear reactors would put the Netherlands in contention to be the first EU member state capable of achieving the 2050 climate target
Perhaps the Netherlands made the right decision for its citizens and the climate to decommission the gas field in Groningen. But now, it lacks the secure domestic energy source that Austria can fall back to in hydropower, or Germany in lignite coal.
In light of its compromised situation, the Netherlands cannot look to current EU leadership for direction in its own energy policy, especially in the choice of technologies to include as ‘green’ in the Just Transition Fund.2 In fact, an investment in just ten nuclear reactors (France has sixty today) would put the Netherlands in contention to be the first EU member state capable of achieving the 2050 climate target.3
The Netherlands was once the pre-eminent world power by unprecedented progress in flood protection, naval defence and international trade, in the process both inventing and utilising modern capitalism. These achievements still loom large in the public imagination, even today. Thus, the Dutch people intuitively understand how wisely allocating capital on large shared projects can produce national prosperity and well-being.
The most obvious partner in this nuclear investment is France. France once built sixty reactors in a great rush of public investment, at a cost of under 200 billion euros (by 2020). These reactors provide about three-quarters of France’s electricity, providing power at a little more than half the price of German electricity but at one-tenth of the carbon emissions.
Fears of nuclear waste and nuclear power plants are displaced from lingering Cold War fears of nuclear weapons
In comparison, German renewable investment costs continue to balloon – by one estimate spending is expected to pass 500 billion euros by 2025 – when it may get half its electricity from wind and solar, with the remaining part largely from coal, natural gas and biomass combustion.
Nuclear energy is inherently safe
Germans believe nuclear energy is unsafe when, in reality, it is among the safest industrial activities, with per-unit mortality numbers comparable to wind and solar energy. The journal Nature published research by the climate scientist James Hansen showing that nuclear energy has, to date, saved nearly two million lives that would have been shortened from dangerous air pollution.4
All new industries from jet travel to skyscraper construction to petrochemicals have had accidents in their youth and nuclear was no different. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 occurred due to an ancient and abandoned reactor design within a totalitarian regime. Even so, fewer than two hundred people total will die, according to the United Nations, after eighty years, from the accident, which killed about fifty firefighters who put out the fire.5
Nuclear waste is the best kind of waste from energy production because there is so little of it and has never hurt anybody nor likely ever will. If you reprocess it like France does then it can be made into a weapon. But most nations simply store the tiny amounts of waste at the site of production.
People who fear that nuclear waste will be around forever seem to forget that many things humans have created will be around forever – including solar panels, which are made with heavy toxic metals, including lead, and which are disposed of in landfills or in poor African nations, risking environmental exposure.6
Fears of nuclear waste and nuclear power plants are displaced from lingering Cold War fears of nuclear weapons. When anti-nuclear weapons activists realised that nations would not ‘ban the bomb’ they scapegoated nuclear power plants and created the mythology that still surrounds the technology.
A nuclear Netherlands will provide many economic benefits
Engineers were poorly equipped to defend nuclear energy because popular fears of the technology are not about how the machines operate but more about the extraordinary powers that the technology gives humankind, for good and bad.
While the French have stopped building nuclear plants, Dutch and Czech lawmakers are increasingly positive toward the technology. Representatives from both countries recently published a major report concluding that industrial solar and wind facilities would require 148 to 536 times more land than nuclear plants, and cost significantly more, due to the need for transmission lines, back-up power plants, and dealing with rising grassroots opposition.7
Why the Netherlands should go nuclear
The French nuclear industry should be delighted at the prospect of three nearby European customers – Britain, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic – for the type of reactor which it is currently only building for the United Kingdom at Hinkley Point, and perhaps soon at Sizewell.
The Netherlands should seek to produce as much of the supply chain as it has an appetite for, creating high-skill and high-wage industrial jobs, perhaps even including technology transfers to allow the Dutch to export their own copies of French nuclear reactors in the future.
As a nuclear power, the Netherlands will accept the leadership position in securing the EU’s energy needs in an uncertain world
In the short-term, such a project would provide the boon of a fiscal stimulus, invigorating the Dutch and French industrial economies with tens of thousands of new jobs. But first things first: the Netherlands should immediately secure the long-term operation of its existing plant, Borselle, as the centre of training and experience in nuclear operations.
The Netherlands should consider creating a financing mechanism to work around expected anti-nuclear obstruction in Brussels, and upgrading its grid to provide and profit from back-up electricity sold to Belgium and Germany. This is because these countries have undermined the stability and security of the electricity grids through heavy reliance on unreliable industrial solar and wind farms, and may increasingly come to depend on their neighbours.
One of the main advantages of nuclear energy is the small size of its reactors. Few people in the world want any construction near them, much less, a nuclear power plant and so the Dutch government may find it easier to simply co-locate new reactors at Borselle, the site of its existing nuclear power plant.
A nuclear Netherlands will provide many economic benefits, including enough capacity to meet both days with high demand and produce electricity and hydrogen gas for electric and fuel cell vehicles.
Gas fields can be retired, plans for off-shore wind farms can be scrapped and there can be a secure transition to restore the biome and traditional landscape of the Netherlands. This would have a second advantage of restoring local planning rights to communities around the country, which have had to be rescinded to force-construct superfluous wind farms.
Internationally, the Netherlands would be recognised as a regional hub for clean energy exports, and a global leader in climate mitigation. With its new fleet of nuclear reactors, the Netherlands could produce two million tons of clean hydrogen, enough to power a quarter of the EU’s hydrogen use today, and secure a first-mover advantage in the fast-growing industry.
With its always-on electricity, the Netherlands should expect to export large amounts of energy to Germany and Belgium. Ironically, in bucking the European line and securing its own interest, the Netherlands will keep the dream of an interconnected Europe alive. As a nuclear power, the Netherlands will accept the leadership position offered up by France in securing the EU’s energy needs in an uncertain world.
- 1Siemens is the builder of the Netherlands’ only operating reactor, located in Borssele, and once a world-leading firm in nuclear energy.
- 2The Just Transition Fund is the first pillar of the Just Transition Mechanism. For more information, see: European Commission, ‘Just Transition funding sources’.
- 3EU member states achieve to be climate neutral by 2050, an objective that is in line with the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal. For more information, see: European Commission, ‘2050 long-term strategy’.
- 4‘Nuclear power saves lives’, Nature 497, 539, 29 May 2013.
- 5Michael Shellenberger, ‘It Sounds Crazy, But Fukushima, Chernobyl, And Three Mile Island Show Why Nuclear Is Inherently Safe’, 11 March 2019.
- 6Amy Yee, ‘Electronic marvels turn into dangerous trash in East Africa’, The New York Times, 12 May 2019.
- 7Katinka M. Brouwer and Lucas Bergkamp, ‘Road to climate neutrality by 2050’, ECR Group and Renew Europe, Brussels, January 2021.