By Ella Gonzalez
New York City, New York
This month, nuclear power is having a moment.
As a result of domestic energy crises, several governments are struggling to maintain a sufficient supply of energy, forcing them to revive an overlooked source of sustainable power that has long faced opposition from environmental activists and the general public.
European nations are facing the prospect of energy shortages this winter, given that Russia supplies 40% of Europe’s natural gas. Its Nord Stream 1 pipeline, in particular, makes up 33% of Russian gas exports. In the first week of September, in response to surging gas prices, the G7 agreed to institute an oil price cap on Russian gas imports. A few hours later, Russia opted to close the pipeline indefinitely, citing mechanical issues. They claim that Western sanctions have made repairs difficult, but most suspect this is an attempt to land another blow on the West and undermine their financial and military support for Ukraine.
To deal with the resulting crisis, European nations are attempting to artificially lower prices and target the demand-side by rationing electricity. On the supply-side, however, Europe’s dependence on natural gas has prompted nations to turn to alternative energy sources. Germany is one such country. Even prior to the closing of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Russia drastically reduced its natural gas exports to Germany as a response to its support for Ukraine. Russian gas accounted for 55% of Germany’s natural gas imports before the war—a staggering 27% of its energy sources.
With winter looming, Germany, which is dependent on natural gas for heating homes, has chosen to revive its dwindling nuclear energy sources. In 2009, nuclear energy made up 11% of Germany’s energy consumption, while natural gas comprised 22%; now, nuclear energy makes up only 3.1% of German energy, while natural gas was expanded to 30% in 2021.
The drop in nuclear energy usage was a result of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, in which a tsunami triggered a nuclear meltdown that led to the evacuation of roughly 150,000 people. Only one death was directly tied to the accident, but it persuaded many nations to embark on programs which moved their energy sources away from nuclear power in the years to follow. In 2011, Germany began plans to close all 17 of its operating nuclear power plants. Fourteen have since been closed, but shortly after Russia’s pipeline closure it was confirmed that the country intends to keep two of the remaining three power plants in operation until April, past the previous December 31st shutdown deadline. While the nuclear energy produced would not directly replace Germany’s natural gas, it would render the ongoing substitution of natural gas for phased-out nuclear energy unnecessary. Nuclear power joins other less environmentally friendly measures already undertaken to increase supply: Germany has brought back several coal plants, which are expected to increase pollution and serve as a setback to efforts to curb carbon emissions.
Why nuclear power? The obvious cause of the extension of the plants’ lives is the impending energy shortage, but officials have cited the fact that they remain safe to use past the December deadline, as an additional advantage. It would seem foolish to intentionally dismiss a safe source of much-needed energy, yet the global public has long held a hostile view of nuclear power. After the disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, Fukushima did little to improve the public’s impression of the energy source.
The reality, however, is that nuclear power provides a reliable, zero-emissions solution to combat climate change and energy shortages. Though the issue of nuclear waste is frequently brought up, many scientists believe the fears are overblown. The issue certainly merits discussion, but new technologies promise to improve safety and reduce environmental impact relative to those of the decades preceding. A report from the Pew Research Center sparked discussion in 2015, when it found that 65% of scientists of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) support building more nuclear power plants. Furthermore, the idea has support from both sides of the American political spectrum: liberals concerned with the environmental impact of energy production can support a carbon-neutral energy source, while conservatives who object to less reliable sources of renewable energy point to nuclear power as the solution.
In addition, Japan undertook a similar task to Germany when the Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a plan to reopen ten nuclear power plants that were shuttered in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The government is considering funding research on improving nuclear technology and safety against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war and the unreliable fossil-fuel market it has produced.
This revival of nuclear power is present in the United States as well. On September 1st, the California legislature voted to keep the Diablo Canyon reactor in operation for an additional five years. As California attempts to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2045, it has faced summer energy shortages which as recently as 2020 led to widespread rolling blackouts. Diablo Canyon, scheduled to shut off in 2025, is the state’s last nuclear power plant in operation. Many believe that the 2045 goal will be difficult or impossible without the power Diablo Canyon provides, which accounts for 9% of the state’s total energy supply and 15% of its renewable energy supply. Keeping the plant in operation could significantly help the state achieve the 2045 milestone.
California is simply following the general trend of the past few years. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration dedicated $6 billion to maintaining nuclear plants in operation. Given that nuclear energy represents a fifth of the country’s energy supply, it is crucial that we revive this often-neglected source of electricity with so much promise for a more sustainable future.