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War in Ukraine and climate change are pushing some countries to turn back toward nuclear power

Nuclear power was on the way out in Japan and Germany. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Sharon Squassoni, a research professor at George Washington University and board member at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, noted that just as disasters like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have driven public opposition to nuclear power, it has gained popularity in past moments of uncertainty about energy supplies.

“I’ll be curious to see if this panic about energy scarcity has a boosting effect for nuclear energy,” she told Grid. “The oil crisis in the ‘70s was what convinced France and Japan to go all in on nuclear. They really put all their eggs in that basket.”

Could the combination of the war and climate fears bring an end to the post-Fukushima era? That’s far from clear. In some countries, this moment is more likely a brief detour on the long road away from nuclear power. But given the nature of nuclear power as a technology, decisions made today could have economic and environmental consequences for decades to come.

Japan: Fukushima and everything after

Germany: A history of zigzagging on nuclear

Jan-Henrik Meyer, an environmental policy researcher at Germany’s Max Planck Institute, thinks it’s unlikely the country will reverse course at this point. “We are so close to the final phaseout,” he told Grid. “All these plans are completely written, preparations have been taken, job contracts have been arranged so that people will retire early. The industry has already very much already given up on this.”

An emissions quandary

Nuclear power has spawned a seemingly never-ending argument in climate change circles over its role in a transition to a low- or zero-emissions economy. Some scientists and activists insist that renewable energy can fill the world’s energy needs comfortably, without any of the risk inherent to nuclear fission; but other analyses demonstrate a significant role for nuclear energy if there is any hope of actually meeting the Paris Agreement goals of 1.5 or even 2.0 degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively).

The United States still gets around 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Though it is less exposed to energy disruptions from the war in Ukraine, there is also a trend here to keep reactors running longer than planned. California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which sits along the picturesque coastline in San Luis Obispo County, was scheduled to retire at the end of its 40-year operating license in 2025. It had been deemed too expensive to modernize and continue operations.

But more recently, a series of heat waves and other climate change-related disasters have swung the tides on the state’s only nuclear plant, with lawmakers voting at the end of August to loan its operator $1.6 billion and keep it running through 2030. The third largest power generating station in the western United States, capable of powering 1.6 million homes, Diablo Canyon’s closure would knock a huge chunk of zero-carbon power offline. An analysis from MIT in 2021 estimated that replacing its output would require 90,000 acres of solar panels and that operating it through 2035 would save $2.6 billion in power system costs and provide a hedge against brownouts that a warming world can provoke.

Schmid agreed that new nuclear plants appear unlikely to play a big role in the near-term climate crisis. “There is no reactor that is coming online on schedule and under budget,” she said. “Everything is delayed and not just by a few months or weeks, but by years, sometimes decades,” and virtually always comes in dramatically over initial cost estimates.

“In the near term, we need to accelerate the retirement of coal and actually reduce our reliance on natural gas. They’re the things that are driving the climate change,” Clemmer said. “If we’re also shutting down nuclear plants during that time frame, it’s just going to make it that much harder to stay on track with our emission targets.”

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