The Countries That Are Going Nuclear on Climate Change
Nuclear energy is poised for a comeback in the UK, Finland, Poland, and Slovakia.
From 1930 to 2005, the world’s energy usage increased tenfold, from 50 exajoules to 500 exajoules. Looking forward, the world demand for energy is projected to rise by about 50 percent by 2030, and almost double by 2050 — possibly a conservative estimate if we don’t find even more novel ways to consume large amounts of energy (e.g. cryptocurrency) in the meantime.
Existing energy generation techniques may not sustainably scale to accommodate this demand if we continue to depend on fossil fuels or most “green” energy options (wind, hydroelectric, solar, geothermal). For some representative calculations from about a decade ago on this topic, see Cambridge physicist David Mackay's book, "Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air".
Fortunately, there’s a perfectly sustainable option that’s been in widespread use for over 70 years and is safe, clean, and scalable: nuclear energy. Nuclear power is one of our best bets for addressing climate change. Just to quantify it, one study calculated that a kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity has a carbon footprint of only 4 grams of CO2 equivalent. Compare this with 4 grams for wind and 6 grams for solar energy, and 109 grams for coal (including carbon capture and storage).
To make it plausible that nuclear energy can scale to meet any realistic human demand, we should realize that nuclear energy powers the sun — and essentially everything else, if we go deep enough. So, technically, all energy is nuclear.
Today, there's an increasingly wide variation in nuclear policy. The UK, Finland, Poland, and Slovakia are accelerating towards a nuclear future, as are US states like Wyoming. By contrast, some countries like Germany, Belgium, Italy, and France are going backward in time, shutting down well-established operational reactors for political reasons.
Here’s a look at the nuclear state of play from around the globe.
Many countries are increasing their commitment to nuclear energy. Here are the nations planning new reactors to meet their energy needs and their commitment to combating climate change. If you're building a nuclear energy startup, these may be the places to migrate to.
Finland is home to the world’s most efficient nuclear reactors. Its four reactors currently provide around 30% of its electricity.
In 2019, the Finnish government announced a new energy policy with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. Two more nuclear reactors are planned, which will bring the country’s nuclear contribution to about 60%. As well as coal phase-out and building new nuclear reactors, the policy supports extending the lifetimes of existing reactors.
In May 2002 Finland's parliament voted to approve building a fifth nuclear power reactor, which was the first decision to build a new nuclear unit in Western Europe for more than a decade.
Finland is also developing a revolutionary way to deal with waste disposal, with the world’s first deep Geologic Nuclear Waste Repository.
Slovakia has four nuclear reactors which generate half of its electricity, and it has two more under construction. Slovakia has a strong commitment to nuclear energy, with government policy in favor of self-sufficiency in electricity.
Slovenské elektrárne, which is 34% state-owned, is the owner of the Mochovce nuclear power plant in Slovakia. Annual production of the completed units is estimated to save more than seven million tonnes of emissions.
Poland has concrete plans to increase its nuclear power generation in order to move away from its heavy dependence on coal.
In 2005 the Polish cabinet decided that in order to achieve energy diversification and reduce emissions the country should immediately introduce nuclear power. Ministers called for the construction of at least two plants in Poland to provide 15% of power, which would reduce coal's share to 60% by 2030.
The United Kingdom generates around 20% of its electricity from nuclear and has undertaken a thorough assessment process for new reactor designs and their locations.
In the 1990s, nuclear power plants contributed around 25% of total annual electricity generation in the UK. This figure has declined as old power plants have been shut down due to aging-related problems. Almost half of current nuclear capacity is to be retired by 2025.
The UK is, however, building new nuclear power plants. In 2015 the UK government established new energy policy priorities, involving phasing out coal power, building new gas-fired plants, and increased reliance on nuclear power and offshore wind. The Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation stated that the expectation is for "a significant proportion" of the remaining 25 GWe to come from nuclear, although the government has not yet set a fixed target for nuclear capacity.
China’s 13th Five-Year Plan was released in 2016, and it outlined a set of ambitious energy goals that were centered on reducing the country’s reliance on coal power in favor of cleaner alternatives. Nuclear energy played a big role in this plan, with China committed to approving six to eight nuclear reactors a year. But getting off coal has thus far required substantial help from natural gas.
Going forward, though, China has pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to about 20% and to significantly reduce carbon emissions in the next decade. This means much more nuclear energy and far less natural gas.
Currently, China gets under 5% of its energy from nuclear power, and the build-out of new capacity has been relatively slow -- between 2005 and 2020, the annual average new nuclear capacity has been 3.4 GWe/yr. But this number will rise to 9.0 GWe/yr between 2020 to 2030.
China is also becoming practically self-sufficient in reactor design and construction. The country has established a strong nuclear supply chain, a feat that other countries have struggled to replicate.
A number of countries in Europe and Asia have successfully used nuclear power for a significant portion of their electricity, but are nonetheless reducing their use of this clean energy source. And historically, whenever nuclear power plants are shut down, the energy gap is filled by fossil fuels.
Germany decided to phase out nuclear power altogether due to an overreaction to the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant meltdown, despite the fact that the meltdown didn’t actually harm anyone (the earthquake and tsunami did). Germany's Energiewende (energy transition) is a national program that aims to phase out nuclear power and replace it with renewable technology.
Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has admitted that phasing out nuclear power is contributing to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and that it will make it harder for the country to meet its climate targets. However, she remains committed to the phase out.
In the year 2000, nuclear power stations in Germany had a 29.5 per cent share of the power generation mix, which was reduced to 11.4 percent in 2020.
By 2022, all nuclear power plants in Germany will be shut down.
Germany aims to fill the gap with renewable energy and gas, but has had to increase its reliance on coal since nuclear generation has been decreased.
Germany is also leading the charge to exclude nuclear power from the EU’s Sustainable Finance Taxonomy, which is a classification system designed to establish environmentally sustainable economic activities. It influences the climate policies that countries can fund. Excluding nuclear from the Taxonomy will make it harder for EU countries to build new nuclear plants, and will also go against scientific evidence.
Meanwhile, a 2019 survey has shown increasing support for nuclear energy in Germany, with 83% of respondents agreeing that the country should maintain its nuclear energy production (compared with 80% in 2017). This indicates that political decision-making is not being led by public opinion.
Belgium also plans to phase out nuclear energy. Belgium currently has seven nuclear reactors that generate around half of its electricity, but in 2003 the Belgian Senate approved the Federal Act, which prohibited the building of new nuclear power plants and limited the lifetimes of existing plants to 40 years.
A report in October 2016 by PwC Enterprise Advisory considering energy scenarios to 2050 found that Belgium would fail at meeting its climate goals, and that electricity price stability and security of energy supply would also be at risk without a significant contribution from nuclear energy beyond 2025.
However, in 2018 the Belgian government reaffirmed its nuclear phase-out policy, and aims to build up to four new gas plants instead by 2025.
Austria has historically been able to rely on hydropower for over 60% of its electricity production and relies on gas, coal and oil for the rest. Austria has no nuclear reactors, and the country passed a law in 2015 banning imports of nuclear electricity. The country currently has no plans to revise this.
Taiwan has three nuclear power reactors, which provide around 10% of the island's electricity generation. Taiwan imports around 98% of its energy. A project to build two advanced reactors has been cancelled. And the Democratic Progressive Party elected in 2016 has a policy of phasing out nuclear power by 2025.
In 2017, a problem at a large, gas-fired power plant plunged half of Taiwan into darkness for about five hours. In 2018 a referendum question on nuclear power in Taiwan showed 59% support for maintaining the island’s dependence on nuclear power, with nearly ten million people casting votes. However, Taiwan’s new energy strategy reestablished in 2019 that nuclear power will be phased out.
Italy once had four operating nuclear power reactors, but they have all been shut down, partly in response to fear and misinformation after the Chernobyl accident. That is, in 1987 Italy held a referendum and decided to phase out nuclear energy altogether.
Italy currently relies heavily on oil and gas, and imports, which also means that its electricity prices are high above the European Union average. Despite phasing it out on Italian soil, around 6-8% of the electricity consumed in Italy is from imported nuclear power.
France was historically the most bullish country in Europe on nuclear energy, but that’s changing.
They've long had an energy policy based on energy security; about 70% of their electricity comes from nuclear energy and 17% is from recycled nuclear fuel. This has helped France become the world's largest net exporter of electricity, and electricity in France costs the French consumer almost half of what it costs in Germany.
Unfortunately, due to pressure from anti-nuclear nations, the current French Government policy is to reduce reliance on nuclear power by shutting down 12 reactors by 2035. This move will reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power by 50%.
In 2020 France closed its oldest power plant, Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant, which had produced reliable clean energy for 42 years. Over 1,000 people lost their jobs with the premature closure.
Nuclear power in the United States is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the US is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30% of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. Federal policy on nuclear power is also improving, and thanks to the space program and the US Navy, nuclear technology in the US is exceptional.
The US has built new reactors over three decades, and two more reactors are in the works. New reactors have been proposed, for example in Wyoming.
However, due to pressure from activist groups, some existing nuclear power stations have been prematurely shut down. For example, Indian Point in New York was closed after almost 60 years of providing clean energy, a closure that then contributed to a strained energy grid and blackouts across the state.
Generally speaking, the power market in the US is fractured, and heavy subsidies for renewables have made nuclear ‘unprofitable’ in some states.
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