The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the world installed 5.5 GW of new nuclear capacity in 2019, with China and Russia leading the way. In April, the U.S. announced its intention to take bold action to strengthen its uranium mining and conversion industries, and to restore the viability of the entire frontend of its nuclear fuel cycle. Utilizing American technological innovation and advanced nuclear research and development (R&D) investments, the U.S.’s goal is to strengthen American leadership in the next generation of nuclear energy technologies, thereby preventing Chinese and Russian state-owned enterprises from reigning supreme in the global market.
Last year, the IEA issued its first report dedicated to nuclear power in nearly two decades, which brought this important energy resource back into the global debate. While many regions have been expanding nuclear R&D investments, the European Union (EU) has been removing itself from the civil nuclear geopolitical race.
A Long History of Nuclear Power Advancements
The Euratom Treaty, signed in 1957, was one of the foundations of the EU. After World War II, European states needed abundant and cheap energy, which led to the development of civilian use nuclear energy. “Two decades later, this industry was designed and expertly exploited,” explained Samuele Furfari, professor at the University of Brussels and chair of the Board of Directors of the European Society for Engineers and Industrialists. “Then, we had to face opposition from anti-nuclear activists, which the media overwhelmingly supported, and politicians followed suit.”
Meanwhile, convinced of a bright future for nuclear energy, Russia and China started to control uranium supplies and assembly processes, thus, binding with customers for the life of a power plant, which can be from 50 to 80 years. This left France, which has advanced nuclear know-how, limited to the role of subcontractor. For Furfari, “the real problem in Europe is the ever-changing environment, the sad public discussions, and the unstable legislation.”
Within Europe, albeit somewhat muted, many countries have had the tacit energy support of France, a nation that relies on nuclear power for 60% of its energy. With neighboring Germany wholeheartedly committed to the decommissioning of its nuclear power plants, this represents an ideological rift through the heart of the EU. Until this is resolved, it will continue to be a source of discord and disagreement for years to come.
But all is not lost. In an attempt to get the nuclear topic back on the table, the European nuclear industry wrote an open letter in June to the European Commission, stating that it is ready to play an important role in supporting the so-called “European Green Deal.” It believes nuclear energy can be a vital part of that effort.
New Technology Could Rejuvenate the Industry
Nuclear technology has progressed enormously over the last 60 years, and its potential is huge. Experts claim that nuclear power generation has a great future, with many companies working on next-generation nuclear reactor designs. One of the goals is for these reactors to re-use the spent fuel produced by the present technology, making investing in it worthwhile.
However, the nuclear industry must first solve two major problems: perceived safety issues and conversion efficiency gaps on one side and waste management on the other. Scientists are working on it. New reactors intended for more sustainability and economical use, for enhanced safety, and for resisting proliferation are either already available or on the way. New technologies, such as the helium-cooled high-temperature reactor, the accelerator-driven thorium reactor, and the traveling wave reactor (promoted by Bill Gates), are now emerging.
Nuclear spent fuel, commonly and misleadingly called “nuclear waste,” accounting for less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes, can be disposed of at reactor sites or underground, where it remains dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Yet, another solution exists: by injecting neutrons into the cores of long-living radioactive elements, long-living waste can be transformed by nuclear transmutation into short-living radioactive elements that can be controlled more easily.
In the long term, nuclear fusion seems to be the way to go. Deuterium, present in seawater at a trace amount of 0.015%, can supply the world with energy for millions of years. But the technology is not there yet. As we wait for nuclear fusion to come to fruition, EU decision-makers need to develop an ambitious vision for energy in Europe, recognizing nuclear for the clear and indispensable benefits it can provide to accompany Europe’s energy transition and incentivize more investments in the sector.
In the end, money is the key. As long as fossil fuels remain cheap, investing in other sources of energy lacks urgency. But EU leaders must look further into its future. Nuclear power holds the promise of a brighter tomorrow; we just need to deal with it in a safe, ethical, and responsible way. This responsibility is ours to take. ■
—Benita Dreesen is managing director for Greenforce, a Geneva, Switzerland-based corporate sustainability strategy and communications firm that works with organizations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the U.S.