Columnists: Nils Borg, European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

Published on: 26 Aug 2022

Nuclear nostalgia and dangerous distractions

Most of us in Europe are back at work after a hot summer. In Northern Europe we have seen very high electricity prices, which is not a typical summer thing for us northerners. I am not going to discuss the reasons for this, others can do this better than me. Instead, I would like to focus on the discussion about nuclear energy we are having today. It is not only that it is stupid, but worse, it is a distraction from real solutions.

To put things in perspective: evidence and facts could take us far through better demand solutions, if we only took it to heart. The CEO of Energiforsk (a Swedish utility and power sector owned research institute) was interviewed in one of the leading Swedish newspapers. He concluded that their recent analyses of the EU power sector revealed that much of the extreme electricity prices would disappear with as little as five percent across-the-board energy efficiency improvements in the EU. I was surprised that so little could do so much.

Back to the nuclear nostalgia: I am personally agnostic about how fast we phase out the ones in operation today. But I see a sense of vindication in the nuclear debate: it was stupid to close them down and we would have more and cheaper electricity if we hadn’t. Maybe, but there is also a cost associated with keeping them. Besides, France has an electricity shortage this summer with high prices. They have many reactors but poor availability when they would be really needed. I am actually curious about what the nuclear debate looks like in France right now.

Let’s restart reactors, is another argument. Maybe possible in a few instances, but from what I can understand it is not that easy. And, we still buy a lot of nuclear fuel from Russia, let’s not forget this.

So let’s build new ones! Now we are getting seriously detached from reality. This week four Swedish parties toured the country in a pro-nuclear bus tour, promoting nuclear as a solution to high prices. It doesn’t exactly appear realistic. The Finnish Olkiluoto 3 should have started in in 2009 but came online this year (yes, it is 2022). The Energiforsk CEO claims in the interview referenced above that it is doubtful that owners ever will get their investments back. And in the UK, the Claverton Energy Research Group conclude that “Sizewell C is much more expensive and slower to build than proven and reliable alternative low carbon solutions”.

What about small modular reactors? Maybe they will work, maybe not. Even if it were a proven technology (no, it isn’t) I am not so sure I’d like to have them in my neighbourhood when I see what is happening to cities in Ukraine.

We know that there are better solutions. All no-regret low-carbon scenarios have energy efficiency at the core. The same is true for energy security.  Efficiency makes the sustainable energy transition cheaper, safer, easier and quicker, so we really need to get started now with things that work.

I used to think that rational and sound economic arguments would prevail (you know, if something is cheaper and quicker rather than expensive and slower, then we would rather choose the cheaper and quicker solution). I am not so sure anymore, and the positive nuclear narrative we are seeing even in countries like Germany worries me. Not that I really think they will generate a lot of new reactors – but in the light of what is happening in Ukraine and what is happening with the climate, the nuclear nostalgia is a dangerous distraction. We simply don’t have time for this.

The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Nils Borg