Two decades ago, the Green Party of Belgium demanded a commitment to phase out nuclear power as a condition for joining the federal government. They got their wish, and Belgium was supposed to end all nuclear power by 2025. But in March 2022, in light of the Ukraine War, the Belgian Greens did a U-turn. On 18 March, they gave their assent to extend nuclear power in Belgium until at least 2035. Just four months earlier, in December 2021, the Greens had successfully insisted the 2025 phase-out date be respected, even as other parties in the coalition government argued the early phase-out would be bad for climate change because it would drive a need for gas.

The phase-out plan is “ready and feasible, but reassessment is needed with Ukraine”, the Green Belgian energy minister Tinne Van der Straeten said in early March. The fear was that closing Belgium’s seven nuclear reactors would mean burning more gas for power until enough renewables capacity became available, and that gas would have to come from Russia. The country’s two newest nuclear plants alone, operated by French utility Engie, account for almost half of Belgium’s electricity production.

The New Safe Confinement (new shelter) over the remains of reactor 4 and the old sarcophagus at Chernobyl nuclear power plant. (Photo by German Meyer via Getty Images)

The idea of phasing out nuclear power has been popular in much of Europe for some four decades, but more recently, its status as a CO2-neutral power source has prompted a rethink as Europe aims to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent in 2050.

Nuclear safety concerns in war

Germany next door, however, has been a different story. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel made a dramatic recommitment to phase out German nuclear power in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Of the 17 operating reactors in Germany, eight – mostly older ones – were permanently shut down following that decision. Today, only three remain, and the government is sticking with its plan to shut these down by next year; a decision confirmed by a vote in the German Parliament in mid-March.

That decision surprised many, considering the difficult position Germany now finds itself in because of its high dependence on Russian oil and gas. For some, however, the heightened sense of urgency around energy independence has been outweighed by the frightening images of Ukrainian nuclear plants on fire after missile attacks over the past weeks.

“In Germany it is [safety fears] already something which is deeply rooted in peoples’ minds, including under this government,” says Yves Desbazeille, director-general of the European nuclear industry association FORATOM. He notes that the Greens are more powerful in the German governing coalition than in the Belgian governing coalition. “For [the German Greens] it is really very deep in their DNA. So having them make such a U-turn was [going to be] very challenging.”

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The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which coordinates nuclear safety worldwide, has been working with both the Russians and Ukrainians to guarantee the safety of nuclear plants in the war zone. They have in particular been working to get the Ukrainian technical staff back on rotation at the Chernobyl plant, which they reported was completed towards the end of March.

IAEA director-general Rafael Mariano Grossi says he is continuing consultations to agree a framework with both sides to ensure the safety of nuclear facilities. “With this framework in place, the agency would be able to provide effective technical assistance for the safe and secure operation of these facilities.”

The two operating units of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, which caught fire after being hit by Russian missiles two weeks ago, are operating at two-thirds of their maximum capacity of around 1,000MW each, after the repair of two power lines in late March. Of the country’s 15 reactors, eight remain in operation and radiation levels are normal, according to the IAEA. Everything, they insist, is under control, despite the war.

This is also the message from governments that are pushing for nuclear power as part of the solution to both energy security and climate change, such as France and the US. “Despite Russia’s reckless military activity there has been no near-term challenge to safety,” said US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm on a visit to Paris on 22 March to chair the annual ministerial meeting of the International Energy Agency. “Containment structures are built to withstand nuclear accidents as well as external assault. The safety risk here is not from the presence of nuclear power but from Russia’s unjustified invasion and violation of basic safety principles.”

“The US continues to view nuclear energy as really playing a key part in both our domestic and international efforts to enhance energy security and global climate change,” she added.

However, despite these assurances, breaking news about a nuclear plant on fire after a missile attack is hard to ignore, and will likely linger in peoples’ minds. As much as the Ukraine crisis is showing the value of nuclear power as a home-grown alternative to imported fossil fuels, war in a nuclear country is a reminder of the risk that is always present with this form of power.

“There is no human-made site or infrastructure that can resist proper attacks with powerful weapons like Russia has today,” acknowledges Grossi. He notes that nuclear power plants are protected against most external shocks, including an airplane crash. “Any infrastructure you can attack would be at risk,” he adds. "You could do the same to a hydro dam.”

Changed thinking on nuclear?

Grossi says it is too early to know exactly how the Ukraine crisis will impact Europe’s thinking on nuclear power in the long term, although last week’s developments in Belgium and Germany give some clues. “The gas and power price crisis has already lasted for some months now and a lot of governments have in mind that something should be done,” he says. “The current situation isn’t sustainable and solutions have to be found.”

As the energy price crisis has unfolded, fuelled by the economic recovery from the pandemic, its impact is already clear in the outcome of a long-running debate over an EU taxonomy for green investments. In the end, both gas and nuclear were included on the list. It was a demonstrable comeback for nuclear power in Europe after fears that Brexit would tip the balance of opinion against it in the remaining EU 27.

However, when the European Commission came out with its REPowerEU strategy on how to wean the EU off of Russian gas on 8 March, nuclear was strangely absent. The strategy had been in the works since the start of the year as a response to rising energy prices, but it was quickly retooled with a Russia focus following the outbreak of the war.

“We are disappointed that very little is said about nuclear in the communication, given that it consistently produces around one-quarter of electricity in the EU,” said Grossi. “Ignoring the EU’s main source of highly dispatchable, low-carbon and non-weather dependent energy raises questions about whether the proposed measures are realistic.”

New nuclear power plants will not solve today's energy security problems, he acknowledges, because they will take at least ten years to build and come online, but at the very least the Commission should be advising against taking existing plants offline, he says.

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“The Commission itself has already admitted that nuclear will form [part of the] the backbone of a carbon-free European power system, together with renewables," Grossi notes. “Having an energy mix composed of both nuclear and renewables is key to ensuring an affordable, secure and stable supply of energy in the long-term.”

However, recent decommissionings, coupled with fewer new plants being built as they struggle to attract investment, means the number of nuclear reactors operating globally fell to a 30-year low in 2020, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. A total of 55 new reactors are currently being constructed in 19 countries, but they are almost all outside Europe. China, India and Russia are building the most new plants. The only plants being built in the EU are one in France and one in Slovakia.

The very different reactions in Belgium and Germany this past month show it is hard to predict how the Ukraine crisis will impact European policy on nuclear power. Much may depend on whether the nuclear plants in Ukraine stay safe in the coming weeks and months. Were any kind of nuclear incident to occur, it would likely be game over for nuclear power in Europe – no matter its climate benefits.

Understand the impact of the Ukraine conflict from a cross-sector perspective with the Global Data Executive Briefing: Ukraine Conflict.