Europe’s nuclear club slows emissions cuts

Governments that reject nuclear power are speeding up action on reducing carbon emissions and the adoption of renewable energy sources.

The prospect of using nuclear energy appears to deter European countries from adopting renewable technologies such as wind and solar, and from introducing energy efficiency measures.

Researchers say they found that countries in Europe intending to build new nuclear power stations have a poorer record of reducing their carbon emissions than those that have rejected the technology.

Europe has a higher concentration of nuclear power plants for its population than anywhere else in the world, although many of the European Union’s 28 member states have no plants at all.

The EU has ambitious carbon reduction targets, but how each country reduces its emissions and what technology it uses is a matter for individual governments, and the results of their efforts differ markedly.

The researchers, from the Vienna School of International Studies in Austria and the University of Sussex, UK, examined nuclear power’s role in Europe, dividing the continent into three groups: countries without nuclear power; those with nuclear power that have decided to phase it out; and a group that wants to build nuclear power stations.

The study casts significant doubts on nuclear energy as the answer to combating climate change.

Researchers from Vienna School of International Studies, Austria and the University of Sussex, UK

Nuclear plants

They report in Climate Policy journal that the groups contain a number of different-sized countries, but that the total population of each group is roughly similar.

The first group of 13 countries, without any active nuclear plants, has on average achieved carbon emission reductions of 6 per cent since 2005 and generates 26 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. The group includes Italy, Austria, Denmark, Greece and Ireland.

The second group, which is phasing out nuclear power, includes Germany, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Together, they have managed an 11 per cent reduction in emissions since 2005, and produce 19 per cent of their energy from renewables.

The last group, the nuclear enthusiasts, includes France, Finland and the UK. They have actually increased emissions by 3 per cent in the last decade, and only 16 per cent of their energy comes from renewables.

Within each group there are wide variations, not least among the enthusiasts. Three eastern European countries in the group – Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania – have all increased emissions, while others, such as the UK, have reduced theirs. The adoption of renewables in the pro-nuclear group remains much lower than in either of the other groups.

The report says: “The intensities of national commitment to nuclear power tend to be inversely related to degrees of success in achieving EU climate policy goals.

“While the nuclear sector is increasingly economically uncompetitive and appears to be in decline for the EU as a whole, an abiding political challenge remains one of increasing interests and incentives in popular participation and interest in energy systems management.”

The researchers examine why the nuclear industry − increasingly uncompetitive compared with renewables, and appearing to be in decline in Europe as a whole − still has a political hold in some countries.

Part of this they attribute to the fact that the industry is already entrenched, with nuclear decommissioning and the problem of nuclear waste likely to employ people for many decades.

Noisily propounded

One of the report’s authors, Andy Stirling, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, says that while nuclear power is sometimes “noisily propounded” as an attractive response to climate change, the paper suggests the opposite.

The researchers write: “The study casts significant doubts on nuclear energy as the answer to combating climate change.”

The debate is particularly important in the UK, where the new prime minister, Theresa May, is heading a review into the proposal to build two giant French nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in southwest England. Critics are concerned that the government will have no coherent energy policy if the project is postponed or cancelled.

The previous government withdrew subsidies from onshore wind and solar power while increasing them for nuclear, even though it will be at least a decade before any of the proposed 10 new nuclear plants can come on stream.

This has led many to fear that the UK is falling behind the renewable revolution in the rest of Europe − losing jobs, and also creating the possibility of power blackouts as coal stations are phased out.

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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