An Atomically Strong Central Europe

It looks like the renaissance of nuclear technology is beginning. Countries in the Central European region are leading the way.

Panoramic view of Nuclear power plant in Mochovce. Slovakia
Panoramic view of the nuclear power station in Mochovce, Slovakia. Photo: Stefan / stock.adobe.com

This example works for the imagination – especially this winter. France, which generates around 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power stations, has proved the most resilient to the turbulence in the energy markets in recent months. While citizens of much of Europe (Germany, Italy, central European countries, the UK, and others) fear power cuts and get heart attacks when they see their electricity bills, the French are looking at the coming winter with stoic calm.

In economic terms, too. While the average inflation rate in the euro countries has already exceeded 10 percent, in France, it is around 6 percent. This is the best proof of how relying on nuclear power plants has a stabilizing effect on the economy.

Germany has already started to emulate its western neighbor. Previously, Berlin had pledged to close all its nuclear power plants by 2022. But now, fearing problems balancing its energy mix over the winter due to a lack of gas supply – it has decided to continue using the three nuclear power plants still in operation. Formally, they have been extended until April 2023, but it cannot at all be ruled out that they will operate for longer. The reason is simple: they make it possible to effectively stabilize the energy market.

Central European countries are going even further with a series of announcements regarding new nuclear projects. Countries in the region have announced the expansion of existing power plants, their modernization – or even the construction of new facilities. Are we already speaking of a nuclear renaissance?

A second nuclear era?

Nuclear energy has been controversial and highly emotional since its inception. Perhaps this is because it is burdened with original sin – the fact that it was first used to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These events turned into a drama for two Japanese cities, but it also turned out to be a shock to the whole world – due to the strength of the explosion and its powerful consequences. Therefore, from the very beginning, the effects of nuclear fission research were viewed with great suspicion and plain fear.

This taboo was broken by American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in December 1953 gave the so-called “Atoms for Peace speech,” in which he proposed using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. “Against the dark background of the atomic bomb, the United States does not wish merely to present strength, but also the desire and the hope for peace,” said Eisenhower.

From words. toactions

The US quickly moved from words to action. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, new nuclear power plants sprang up there literally like mushrooms after the rain. The first nuclear power station in the US was built in 1958. Twenty years later, America had 70 nuclear power plants operating in the whole country, which provided about 13 percent of the nation’s electricity.

The same phenomenon could be observed throughout the western world. It was then that France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, among others, rapidly developed their nuclear programs. The reliability of nuclear power plants and the low electricity cost proved very attractive – a temptation that successive governments could not resist.

The change came in 1979, when there was an accident at the US Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. At that time, there was severe damage to the nuclear reactor – admittedly without significant consequences to people or the environment, but sufficiently dangerous to immediately remind us of all of the concerns about nuclear power.

Overlaid in the discussions about the environmental threat was the debate about the danger to the environment, primarily related to the problem that radioactive waste disposal has become. This caused enthusiasm for constructing new nuclear power plants to plummet. And when the Chornobyl disaster occurred in 1986, the rate of commissioning of new reactors dropped almost to zero.

Subsequently, a return to nuclear power has been repeatedly mentioned in the media; the term “nuclear renaissance” even has its own Wikipedia entry. But no such phenomenon has ever actually occurred. Yes, new facilities have been built – but incidentally rather than en masse, usually outside Western countries. The entire industry did not experience the boom in a new construction that it experienced until 1979.

But it cannot be ruled out that we are facing the very beginning of a second nuclear age – because suddenly, the number of nuclear projects to be realized in the coming years has increased rapidly. And the vast majority of them are planned in Central European countries.

Nuclear times

Central Europe has two reasons to plan for nuclear power development: the Green Deal and Russia. The goal of making the EU climate-neutral in 2050 (The European Green Deal) is forcing countries in the region to transform their energy systems to rapidly reduce CO2 production. Nuclear power plants that do not produce carbon dioxide effectively achieve the objectives set out in the EU strategy.

Nuclear energy has been controversial and highly emotional since its inception. Perhaps this is because it is burdened with original sin – the fact that it was first used to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945

The second reason is even more severe. Many countries in the region heavily depended on the supply of energy resources (gas, oil, coal – but also nuclear technology) from Russia. The war in Ukraine has shown that this country is a high-risk partner, so they have begun to search mightily for other solutions. In this respect, nuclear reactors and renewable energy sources are the best sources of electricity, as they give everyone energy sovereignty, freeing them from dependence on suppliers.

Hence the slate of new projects. Slovakia has just entered the final stage of the expansion of the Mochovce nuclear power plant. The first two reactors there were commissioned back in the 1980s. Now the final work (filling it with fuel) is being carried out on the third reactor, which is already being gradually integrated into Slovakia’s energy system. The fourth reactor should be commissioned next year.

Nuclear power – a safe bet

The neighboring Czech Republic also intends to bet heavily on nuclear. “I am convinced that investment in more nuclear energy is one of the most natural responses to the current situation. It is in our interest to develop nuclear power as soon as possible,” said recently Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala during the European Nuclear Energy Forum (Enef) in Prague, underlining that his country is “ready to become a leader” in nuclear energy in Central Europe.

Czechia already possesses six nuclear reactors at two different sites generating about one-third of its electricity, and it plans to deploy new nuclear power capacities in the near future. The government wants to add new reactors at the existing Dukovany site and small modular reactors at the existing Temelín plant.

Poland has very ambitious plans for nuclear power. It was the only country from the former Soviet bloc that did not have a nuclear power plant under the communist regime. Now Warsaw wants to make up for lost time quickly – and is planning to build as many as three new nuclear power plants. The first facility (built using US technology) will be constructed in the Choczewo municipality in Pomerania, with work starting in 2026. The second is to be built in Pątnów in cooperation with South Korea. The least is known about the third investment, for which neither a technological partner nor a location has been selected.

Romania is also expanding its nuclear capabilities. Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă announced in October that two new nuclear reactors would be built at the Cernavoda atomic power plant in the country’s southeast after Romania contracted two loans from the US. Slovenia also wants to cooperate with the United States in expanding its Krško nuclear power plant. Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, and Hungary have already started working on their new nuclear projects. Of course, there will be no shortage of controversy surrounding nuclear power plants.

By attacking such facilities in Ukraine, Russia is raising the stakes; its nuclear blackmail is not just directed against the Ukrainians but virtually all European countries that have (or want to have) such installations on their territory. But recent years have also clearly shown that nuclear power plants are a stable and predictable source of cheap and clean energy. If Europe wants to meet its Green Deal targets, it is hard to imagine that it will be able to achieve them without the development of nuclear technology. The Central European countries have no doubts about this.

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