The crisis in Ukraine may be rushing in a new golden age for nuclear power. Recent announcements from Germany, California, and Japan—three places where early retirement of nuclear plants has been a heated policy debate—signal that the world’s energy crisis could be turning the tide on nuclear energy.
The summer’s biggest surprise in the EU came in late July, when leaders of the German government began indicating that they were open to keeping the country’s remaining nuclear plants open amid skyrocketing energy prices. Germany in particular has been hard hit by the Ukraine war, as it imports a huge amount of its natural gas supply from Russia.
The process of decommissioning Germany’s nuclear plants has been a decades-long journey as part of its larger energy transition, known as Energiewende, but the retirements were accelerated after the Fukushima accident in 2011. Currently, only three of the 17 nuclear power plants that were operating a decade ago in Germany are still in use, providing about 6% of the country’s electricity; all three of these plants are scheduled to be retired by the end of this year.
“Germany has a really large and really strong anti-nuclear movement, ever since the 1980s,” said Jessica Lovering, the cofounder and executive director of Good Energy Collective, a pro-nuclear research group. “They felt that they were impacted from the fallout of Chernobyl, and that’s where that sort of movement gained a lot of momentum. Germany also has a very strong coal industry. The coal industry has long lobbied to close nuclear power plants, because that’s their competition.”
After Russia invaded Ukraine in March, Germany’s neighbor Belgium almost immediately worked out a deal with its nuclear provider, Engie, to extend the life of two of its reactors, which were set to be retired in the middle of this decade, for another 10 years. Germany, however, seemed set on keeping its initial retirement date, despite soaring energy prices—until this month, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he wanted to wait for the results of a comprehensive “stress test” later this year to determine whether or not the plants should be retired.
“It does make a lot of logical sense,” said Lovering. “They don’t have a lot of other options. They’re doing sort of everything they can to reduce gas consumption. And this is a really simple thing that can be done. Easy.”
That’s also the sentiment that seems to be prevailing thousands of miles away, in California. Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that he would pressure to keep open Diablo Canyon, a 2,240-megawatt plant situated on California’s southern coast, to help with the state’s aggressive decarbonization goals; a draft bill, introduced late on Sunday, provides a pathway to extend the plant’s life an additional five years past its scheduled retirement date in 2025. “In the face of extreme heat, wildfires, and other extreme events that strain our current electrical system, the state is focused on maintaining energy reliability while accelerating efforts to combat climate change,” the governor’s office said in a statement earlier this month.
A slew of complex issues, including water permits and the steep costs of operation, led the California plant’s operator, Pacific Gas & Electric, to announce in 2016 that it planned to retire the facility at the end of its federal license—a welcome piece of news for anti-nuclear environmentalists in the state, who had long protested the plant thanks in part to its location along earthquake fault lines. But the plant, the last functioning nuclear plant in the state, provides almost 10% of California’s electricity, and the new bill allows up to $1.4 billion in loans from the state to keep the facility running.
“If you kept nuclear plants running, you could shut down coal plants,” said Matt Bowen, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “That would mean much lower CO2 emissions as well as much lower air pollution.”
Keeping aging plants open is one thing, but building new ones is a different conversation entirely—one that Japan, of all places, is wading into. Last week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan would consider restarting some of its nuclear plants, many of which have sat idle since the Fukushima disaster. Kishida also said that the country is exploring the option of building new next-generation reactors, with a goal of bringing them online in the 2030s.
“Japan is one of the best in the world in terms of building new nuclear power plants,” said Bowen.
Even though gearing up nuclear power could help wean countries and states off of fossil fuels, it doesn’t mean their reliance on Russia will go away entirely. Russia is one of the world’s most important stops in the supply chain for nuclear fuel, providing 46% of the world’s uranium enrichment capacity and 40% of its uranium conversion. If the crisis in Ukraine drags on for years, countries that are increasing or maintaining their nuclear capacity may need to find other sources for fuel production.
Public trust in the safety of nuclear power is another key issue, especially in Japan, which saw anti-nuclear sentiment skyrocket after a 2011 tsunami caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima plant. Bowen pointed out that Kishida has floated small modular reactors as possibilities—technology that eliminates the need for electric pumps to circulate coolant, the systems that failed during the 2011 disaster.
“Is that going to be enough for the general public?” he said. “I don’t know.”
There are still bumps in the road for both California and Germany. Some high-powered German officials, including its economy minister, have pushed back against the idea of keeping their plants open, while Newsom faces a challenging battle to get his bill passed before the legislature adjourns on Wednesday. But the fact that the discussion is on the table at all, Bowen said, is notable.
“To be honest, I’d kind of written [California and Germany] off, but it makes sense to me that they would reconsider,” said Bowen. “I think it’s the logical thing to do.”