The debate on nuclear energy, both civil and military, has once again taken centre stage in Europe and beyond. An important step was taken on 21 March when the Nuclear Summit was held in Brussels with the participation of thirty-two countries, including fourteen EU Member States. At the end of the summit, initiated by Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo and IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi, participants signed a declaration committing to “work towards fully unlocking the potential of nuclear energy” to jointly achieve energy and climate security. The Summit is a historic event in international cooperation on nuclear energy. In fact, it is the first meeting on the subject since 1953, the year in which US President Dwight Eisenhower, in his famous “Atom for Peace” speech at the United Nations, called for cooperation between states in the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

However, opposition to nuclear energy remains high. In the days leading up to the summit, more than six hundred non-governmental organisations issued a joint statement warning governments not to waste time on the ‘nuclear fairy tale’ because the radiation emitted makes nuclear energy too costly in terms of health and environmental impact. In this dossier, we take stock of some aspects of nuclear energy and its use, particularly in Europe.

* Cover photo by Nicolas HIPPERT on Unsplash, bottom photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Different choices in EU countries

Thirteen EU Member States produced nuclear energy in 2022. In descending order of production, they are France, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Finland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia and the Netherlands. About a quarter of the EU’s energy comes from nuclear sources and more than half is produced in France. There are more than 150 reactors in operation.

But not all countries are moving in the same direction. Production in the Netherlands increased by 19.8% year-on-year, in the Czech Republic by 19.1%, in Hungary by 17.5% and in Finland by 10.6%. After a 34.5% drop in 2022 compared to the previous year, France also increased its nuclear energy production in 2023. In January this year, the Senate passed a law abandoning the 2030 target of reducing the share of nuclear energy to 50% of the energy mix. Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s initial plan to close 14 nuclear reactors, by the end of his first term he had actually embraced nuclear energy as the future of France’s independence. Sweden and the Netherlands, where new reactors are to be built, are on the same wavelength. The same is true in Hungary, where enthusiasm for nuclear power has remained constant and strong over the years. Recently, the parliament in Budapest approved two new reactors to add to the four already in operation.

The trend is different in Germany, where the decline in nuclear energy production is striking and was confirmed on 15 April 2023 with the closure of the last three nuclear reactors in operation. As a result, the Union’s total nuclear energy production was the lowest since 1900. Even Spain, the EU’s second-largest producer of nuclear energy, is following Germany’s lead with plans to decommission the first of its seven nuclear reactors in 2027 and completely shut down its nuclear fleet by 2035.

Differences between France and Germany on nuclear energy have led to heated debates in the EU. One stage of the diatribe was won by Paris in April 2021 when, after months of lobbying and strong pressure from gas and nuclear supporters, the European Commission proposed a draft amendment to the EU Taxonomy, the official guide to investment sustainability, to include gas and nuclear, making them sustainable. After years of political wrangling and proposals to block this inclusion, nuclear energy has become sustainable by EU standards from 1 January 2023.

Military nuclear weapons in Europe

Nuclear weapons are located in several European countries. The United Kingdom and France are the two countries on the continent that have their nuclear forces. Over the years, the two countries have taken different approaches to nuclear deterrence. The UK’s Trident system is based on submarines, and the long-range missiles that the submarines carry can only be launched on the order of the Prime Minister. In contrast, France maintains a submarine and air deterrent, the Force de Dissuasion. According to the Arms Control Association, the country’s launch protocol has been deliberately slowed down and could take several days.

In addition to British and French warheads, US nuclear weapons are also located on the continent. In fact, under the principle of nuclear sharing, Nato allies’ warheads are located at six bases in five Alliance member states: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. According to various analysts, the United States may have around a hundred nuclear bombs at these six sites. The presence of nuclear weapons in Europe stems from decisions taken during the Cold War years to reassure NATO members in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union.

The deterioration in relations with the Russian Federation has also brought the debate on European nuclear weapons back to the fore. In February, for example, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner declared that Europe should equip itself with a nuclear deterrent so that it ‘does not remain defenceless against the blackmail of authoritarian states with strategic arsenals’. According to the German minister (a view in line with Germany’s new military strategy), the UK and France should play a greater role in the European nuclear shield if Donald Trump wins this year’s presidential election. Indeed, Trump’s position of ‘abandoning’ NATO countries that do not meet the Alliance’s minimum defence spending threshold is well known. The debate on the so-called ‘European nuclear umbrella’ is therefore open.

An agreement to triple nuclear energy

Twenty-two countries signed the ‘Declaration to Triple Nuclear Energy’ during the COP28, which took place in Dubai between November and December 2023. This agreement commits signatories to triple global nuclear energy capacity by 2050 and calls on the shareholders of international financial institutions to promote the inclusion of nuclear energy in their policies. Indeed, the Declaration recognises the key role of nuclear energy in achieving global net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This position is supported by the International Energy Agency (IEA), which sees nuclear power as a fast and effective path to a cleaner energy future.

The countries that have joined are the United States, Armenia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Ghana, Hungary, Jamaica, Japan, Republic of Korea, Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

Nuclear energy in Italy

Italy’s nuclear adventure began in 1963 with the commissioning of the first power plant at Latina. In the following years, plants were built at Trino Vercellese, Caorso and Garigliano. By 1966 Italy was the world’s third largest producer of nuclear energy, after the United States and the United Kingdom. The change of course, and in particular the perception of the dangers of nuclear energy, came after a series of national and international events: the Irpinia earthquake in 1980 and the Chornobyl disaster in 1986.

In a referendum held in 1987, the majority of Italians expressed their wish to abandon nuclear energy and the plants were gradually shut down. But the nuclear debate never really stopped. A second referendum brought a new and decisive slowdown. In 2011, a few months after the Fukushima tragedy in Japan, the people confirmed their decision to abandon nuclear power. This choice was not challenged (at least on a large scale) until 2022, following the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and rising inflation. In fact, in May 2023, the House of Representatives passed a motion obliging the executive to consider nuclear energy in the national energy mix.

The waste problem in Italy

The issue of the storage of radioactive materials, which become waste when they are no longer usable, is always central to the debate on nuclear energy.

In Italy, for example, the radioactive waste produced by hospitals and the previous “nuclearist” experience has been shipped abroad or is still stored in “temporary” repositories and has never been brought to a national repository and technology park. After years of waiting, on 14 December 2023, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security re-published the list of areas on the National Map of Suitable Areas, which identifies the areas in Italy where the National Radioactive Waste Repository and Technology Park will be built to allow the permanent storage of radioactive waste. However, over the years, none of the municipalities included in the list of suitable areas have come forward to host the repository; on the contrary, they have shown clear opposition to the siting of the repository on their territory.