The Nuclear Alternative

If European countries are serious about adequately addressing the energy trilemma, then they should be serious about expanding the role of nuclear power in their energy portfolio.

Just over a century ago the German sociologist Max Weber described two ethics: the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility. The former involves acting according to one’s convictions, regardless of the consequences. The latter involves taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, even those unintended. Weber was concerned that politicians possessed an undue excess of the former.

This is no less true of the discussion around Europe’s energy policy, which is increasingly allergic to fossil fuels, keen on renewables, particularly solar and wind, but as yet unable to rely on them alone to ensure its energy security. Nuclear power is a viable alternative to address the energy trilemma, i.e. the balance between energy security, energy efficiency, and environmental sustainability. But despite some voices to the contrary, it is not viewed as such. Why did it come to be so maligned?

Originally, nuclear power had both civilian and military applications. The first nuclear reactor was connected to the grid in 1954 in Obninsk, USSR. Simultaneously, the US launched the first nuclear-powered submarine. The UK and France followed suit, no doubt partly inspired by America’s unfavourable reaction to their handling of the Suez crisis. Energy independence required nuclear as part of the mix. With the European Coal and Steel Community in place since 1952, the six founding nations of the European project deepened their cooperation by signing the Rome treaties in 1957, establishing the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community, the latter devoted to opening a market for nuclear power in Europe. Progress and integration were coterminous with nuclear power.

Progress continued apace in the West and USSR: fifteen reactors were operational by 1960, 84 by 1970, 245 by 1980, and 416 by 1990. This apparently smooth upward trend nevertheless belies nuclear power’s chequered past.[1] A gale from the West began to freeze further production. Environmental organizations in the US grew increasingly unwilling to countenance nuclear power. If nuclear technology showed promise at creating, it had also demonstrated its ability to destroy. It remained only to link nuclear power with nuclear weapons in the public mind. The usual triumvirate of lawyers, lobbyists, and celebrities emerged to promote the antinuclear cause. Politicians followed. Where only a handful of applications to build nuclear plants were challenged in the early 1960s, by the beginning of the 1970s a full 73% were challenged. Extended licensing times made nuclear investments costlier and riskier. New requirements, such as the environmental impact statement, and new institutions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality, introduced further complications. Once more, European countries eagerly followed the American example in the 1970s with environmental legislation, ministries, and Green parties cropping up – all antinuclear.

1974/75 was the turning point. All nuclear plants ordered after 1973 were cancelled, the same fate visiting more than two-thirds of those ordered after 1970. Europe, like the rest of the world, was caught up again in the maelstrom of oil politics. Inflation and rising energy costs depressed growth and increased utility costs. Solar and wind grew more attractive, and politics responded to the changing culture. Austria completed its first nuclear reactor in Zwentendorf only to reject nuclear power in a general referendum in 1978. Ireland too saw opposition to nuclear power in the late 1970s. In 1980 Sweden decided to phase out its twelve nuclear power plants. In 1987 Italy opted to do the same with its four plants. As Europe was switching off, other countries fired up their own plants, with China’s first connected to the grid in 1993.

Abandoning nuclear power necessitates the use of other energy sources, be they fossil fuels or renewables. Trade-offs abound affecting a country’s energy trilemma. The push toward renewables – the so-called “energy transition” – is strong. As I have argued elsewhere, the impetus in this direction is justified predominantly by concerns about climate change. Although additional arguments have been adduced in favour of renewables – from leapfrogging opportunities in developing countries to looming peak oil demand to increased possibilities for energy security and independence – these arguments do not justify the rapid rate at which many, mainly Western, countries are effecting the transition. (Although, for better or for worse, the rhetoric has outstripped the implementation.)

If European countries are serious about adequately addressing the energy trilemma, then they should be serious about expanding the role of nuclear power in their energy portfolio. The contrast between France and Germany is instructive. Nuclear makes up the largest source of electricity in France at 70.6%, the highest percentage in the world. It manages to spend a little more than half as much for electricity while producing a tenth of the electricity-generated carbon emissions of its German neighbour. 34% of Germany’s electricity is sourced from wind and solar, with natural gas serving as a necessary backup. As of 2019 German electricity prices were 45% higher than the European average. Renewables have played their part in the price rises. In the case of Germany they have contributed to electricity prices rising 50% since 2007. All told, the costs are substantial: by 2025 Germany will have spent $580bn on renewables, their nuclear phase-out costing their citizens some $12bn per year. Shellenberger writes that from 1965 to 2018 the world has spent $2trn on nuclear and $2.3trn on solar and wind, and yet nuclear has produced twice as much electricity as solar and wind.

France’s ability to cut its dependence on fossil fuels so drastically is thanks to nuclear. Wherefore their willingness? The experience of the oil crisis in the 1970s convinced the French that without their own sources of oil and gas, and with little coal, they needed to rely on nuclear power. Peculiarities of the French nation may also explain their enthusiasm: they are an independent people and have a tradition of large, centrally managed technological projects. Moreover, the authorities have worked hard to convince the people about both the benefits and the risks of nuclear energy.

The risks cited by antinuclear groups are numerous and predicated on fear: fear of radiation, accidents, waste, nuclear proliferation, and cost. The arguments can be rebutted.

Radiation is natural – in fact, the Colorado plateau is more naturally radioactive than most of Fukushima post-accident, and Colorado is not the most radioactive region of the planet, nor do inhabitants in those areas show any higher cancer rates. The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima disasters were noteworthy for the airtime devoted to them, but equally conspicuous for the minimal number – if not complete absence – of fatalities owing to the radiation itself. No one died at Three Mile Island. Chernobyl’s effects are estimated to lead to no more than 160 deaths. Two who perished at Fukushima died of drowning. What the Japanese government’s response to Fukushima did accomplish was an increase in the cost of electricity, leading to over 1000 deaths from cold between 2011 and 2014, some 1600 deaths due to unnecessary evacuation, and more than 4000 air pollution deaths per year. As in Germany, a decrease in nuclear reliance necessitated coal and gas, the former undermining environmental sustainability, the latter energy security.

These accidents have rather served as convenient crises to be exploited to undermine nuclear power. Three Mile Island was the pretext for a 120,000-strong antinuclear protest in Bonn. Similarly, in Germany again, Fukushima convinced Chancellor Merkel immediately to close half of Germany’s nuclear power plants with the remainder to be phased out by 2022. The new coalition government’s commitment to terminate coal by 2030 must issue in higher electricity prices and even greater dependence on Russian gas. And Brussels’ recent proposal to ban long-term contracts on natural gas imports into the EU beyond 2049 will subject the continent to the vagaries of the spot market if renewables are not adequately performing by that point.

When it comes to waste, Shellenberger observes that nuclear is the only energy source that internalizes its own waste. The used nuclear fuel rods take up minimal space, the problem of waste also being attenuated further by Generation III and IV nuclear reactors. Curiously, on this one matter it has become fashionable to impugn the potential future problems of nuclear waste, and to opt for the actual current problems of emissions from fossil fuels, which are the only reliable alternative to nuclear (a fact not lost on the early antinuclear activists who advocated for coal in place of nuclear). In any case, as it stands today nuclear waste is not necessarily useless. 96% of the reusable material in nuclear waste can be recovered. Through recycling, France has managed to run its plants with 17% less natural uranium than would otherwise be required.

The conjunction of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy has also produced a novel line of reasoning that envisions the termination of nuclear energy as a form of nuclear disarmament. Unilateral disarmament is ill-advised at the best of times – and not at all advisable as the objective of a nuclear power drawdown. The fear is that terrorists could fashion nuclear weapons out of nuclear fuel rods. Profound difficulties would plague a terrorist plot to fashion nuclear weapons out of nuclear power plant materials. The problem is logistical. As Shellenberger notes: “It is impossible to imagine a realistic scenario in which terrorists could break into a nuclear plant, use a crane to raise the 100-ton canister of used fuel rods onto an 18-wheel truck, drive it out of the plant along the highway to a coastal port, send it by boat to somewhere with a reprocessing plant, unload it, and then reprocess it. In the real world, the terrorists would be gunned down before getting through the nuclear plant’s entrance.”

A more convincing case against nuclear power can be made in terms of its cost. Nuclear power plants are notoriously expensive. Upfront costs are severe, to the tune of some $6bn to $9bn for a 1,100 MW plant. And given that construction typically takes some five to seven years, investors may need to wait for several years before seeing any returns. The signal was clear with the push to deregulate markets in the 1980s and 1990s. Deregulation revealed excess capacity that had built up in regulated markets, hence reducing demand for additional capacity. As electricity became cheaper, nuclear power plant investments became riskier. Natural gas came to be viewed as the superior alternative.

The regulatory and licensing framework is partly to blame. Then there is organized opposition to regulatory approval. But additional costs encroach as well: on-site construction requires training the local labor force, which issues in lower productivity and higher costs. Cost rises since the 1970s can also be attributed to various other factors: the increasing expenditures on engineering services, on-site supervision, temporary construction facilities, the nuclear steam supply system, the turbine generator, and the containment building.

To some extent these costs are mitigated by longer reactor lifespans. But another potential solution is small modular reactors (SMRs, with capacities of 300 MW or less), currently being experimented with in the US, UK, Russia, China, South Korea, and soon France. Although the regulatory and licensing frameworks must be worked out, the hope is that SMRs could result in shorter delivery times and cut down on capital expenditures, such as on-site construction, all of which would reduce investment risk. Finally, SMRs could have non-electric applications, opening new markets and potentially applicable in regions where large nuclear power plants are less feasible.

Ideally, this would steer private investment into nuclear energy. Otherwise, as matters currently stand, nuclear is a tough sell without government and the public on board. The latter must be convinced that the negative portrayal of nuclear power is a gross caricature born of interest groups and antediluvian notions about what it means to preserve nature (for which, incidentally, wind and solar are ill-equipped). If more members of the public can be convinced of the nuclear alternative, then government will follow suit.

For a continent in search of a purpose and aspiring to solve the energy trilemma, nuclear is more environmentally friendly than coal, more secure than gas, and more reliable than wind and solar. Some European countries, many of them formerly Soviet, have already caught on, with over one-third of the nuclear share of electricity generation in 2020 in France (70.6%), Slovakia (53.1%), Ukraine, (51.2%), Hungary (48%), Bulgaria (40.8%), Belgium (39.1%), Slovenia (37.8%), Czech Republic (37.3%), and Finland (33.9%). Norway relies on hydro, Denmark on wind. Each country must determine for itself what works. Nuclear should be part of the discussion. Let Germany take note, lest all of Europe be shackled to Teutonic convictions – and consequences.

[1] Michael Shellenberger has written candidly on the matter, and I have drawn liberally on his work for this article.


  • Scott B. Nelson

    Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institut. He lectures on politics and philosophy and publishes books, scholarly articles, and commentary. His last book is Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. His next book is on Cicero and prudence in politics.

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The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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