Chance has wanted the shutdown of the last atomic reactors in the largest economic power of the Twenty-seven —Germany— to coincide exactly in time with the opening of a new one, the first in more than 15 years in the entire EU, in another partner very exposed to Russian energy: Finland. Both countries today perfectly embody the two opposing visions of the Old Continent on a source of electricity that is also an inexhaustible source of controversy: nuclear yes or nuclear no.
The calendar could not have been more capricious. Almost 12 years after the Government of Angela Merkel made the decision to leave atomic energy behind —as a result of the Fukushima accident—, last Saturday they disconnected from the network and passed away Isar 2 (Bavaria), Neckarwestheim 2 (Baden-Württemberg) and Emsland (Lower Saxony). A few hours later, already at dawn, the largest reactor on the continent was inaugurated —2,000 kilometers to the north, and with almost a decade and a half delay: Olkiluoto 3; 1.6 gigawatts (GW) of power; and capable of supplying by itself one seventh of the Finnish electricity demand.
The start-up of the Finnish reactor has been anything but a bed of roses. Both because of the delay —14 years: construction began in 2005 and should have been completed in 2009— and because of the cost overruns —the final bill will be around 11,000 million euros, three times more than initially estimated. However, the political turn in the Nordic country, with the return to power of the conservatives, augurs new projects in the coming years: the atomic, according to what the favorite to become prime minister, Petteri, slipped during the electoral campaign Orpo, should be “the cornerstone of Finnish energy policy”.
“If Germany closes the reactors, it is not so much for an economic or climatic issue, but rather an ideological one: they fear a possible nuclear accident or waste more than the already existing global warming,” Alejandro Zurita, former head of cooperation, points out by telephone. Euratom International Nuclear Research Center. “It seems unreasonable to me to close plants that have been operating safely for decades and that contribute to stopping the release of CO₂ into the atmosphere.”
Although the expansion of wind and photovoltaic power continues an unstoppable trajectory in the most populous country in Europe, in the short term fossil fuels will have to fill part of the gap left by nuclear power (6% of the electricity produced in 2022) at various times of the day Coal, by far the most polluting technology and still responsible for a third of generation, will have to disappear from the map in 2038.
In contrast to Germany, when Finland decided to build this reactor, at the beginning of the 2000s, its Parliament “justified it with two arguments that are still valid: energy independence and compliance with its emissions limit,” adds Zurita. “Fossil fuels must be limited by rapidly developing renewable energies, but without giving up nuclear electricity production.”
Consultant and environmentalist Mycle Schneider, author of one of the most comprehensive annual reports on the state of nuclear power in the world, does not see it that way. “What we have seen in Germany is nothing more than a soft and planned, but also accelerated version of a European trend: the decline of the nuclear industry,” he writes by email. “We are facing a phase-out: the renewal rate is too small to guarantee its survival.”
In the last 30 years, as the German expert based in Paris recalls, the EU countries have connected 16 reactors, closed 47 and only started construction on two: Flamanville 3 (in France, which is also severely delayed and cost overruns) and the aforementioned from Olkiluoto 3. “Since construction of these facilities began, the cost of solar energy [fotovoltaica] 90% has sunk and that of wind power, 70%. It is simply impossible for a nuclear power plant to be able to operate at these costs”, he recalls. In that period, solar has added 157 new GW of power in the Twenty-seven; the second, another 175; and nuclear has subtracted 24 GW.
Paris and Berlin, the real heartbeat
Apart from the dichotomy between the paths of Berlin and Helsinki, the nuclear debate continues to be a struggle between the two great continental powers: Germany —with the unwavering backing of Spain and Austria— and France —with the support of various Eastern countries.
The opposition of broad sectors of German society to this technology contrasts with the firm support of the authorities —and of the street— on the west bank of the Rhine. Not only because of its enormous dependence —even in a 2022 marked by the Pandemic of stoppages that has devastated many power plants, 60% of French electricity generation was nuclear-, but for the defense of its national economic interests: of that nationality is Areva, one of the world’s largest power plant developers, and the main engineering firm behind Olkiluoto 3. However, the future of nuclear energy does not depend on France, Germany, or what happens in the EU: it is more, rather, in the hands “of China, India, South Korea and others emerging countries”, concludes Zurita. There, its growth continues to be more than remarkable.