Europe’s Nuclear Power Divide

Last week was a big week for the Fridays For Future, the environmentalist group inspired by Greta Thunberg. Thunberg spoke at a large rally in Berlin on Friday before hundreds of thousands of followers, launching what seems to be the big comeback for the climate-action movement in Europe following months of restrictions on large gatherings due to the pandemic. In 2019, about 6 million protesters had joined the movement on the streets, demanding more radical policy changes to tackle climate change. “We must not give up, there is no going back now,” said Thunberg, appealing to her supporters to keep pressure on European governments.  

But one incident from the demonstration illustrates a large divide in Europe over how to achieve the goals of the environmental movement. A pro-nuclear environmentalist was violently attacked by the surrounding crowd, having her sign removed and destroyed. Even as climate activists push to eliminate carbon-based fossil fuels, many in the movement remain opposed to nuclear power. 

For example, the European Union is presenting roadmap after roadmap, accompanied with legislative packages that will have political institutions busy for years. Europe is tasking itself with overhauling the aviation sector, road transport, agriculture, fuel taxes, it’s cap and trade rules, the approach to trade negotiations, and sustainable finance. All of it has precise targets: reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 55 percent by 2030, climate neutrality by 2050, a ban on the sale of new fossil-fuel powered cars by 2035. For the latter, EU member states will need not just  to update their charging infrastructure which leaves much to be desired, but also improve the energy grid altogether. In Europe the most significant contributor to CO² is the energy sector, which is why decarbonizing it appears to be a primary objective. Once energy production is decarbonized, then electrified high-speed rail, as well as EV road traffic, are genuinely carbon-neutral.

The production of nuclear energy through fission presents the advantages of using up a small amount of space, and producing large quantities of energy with no notable carbon footprint. Adding to that, nuclear energy does not present the volatility downsides that renewables have, meaning a year of bad wind or a particularly cloudy sun won’t affect the power grid. In fact, electrifying the road transport network will also mean diversified peaks in electricity use (charging times will also be high in the evening when users are not working)—while challenging for solar power in particular, is not a problem for nuclear production. Renewable energy necessitates technological improvements in electricity storage capacities, which nuclear energy does not. But the dangers posed by nuclear plants and concerns over storing waste cause many environmentalists to oppose the adoption of nuclear power.

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