A tale of two nuclear plants reveals Europe’s energy divide | Popgen Tech


A bunch of wind turbines rise from the fields on both sides of the highway that runs east out of Vienna. But at the border with Slovakia, which stretches between Austria and Ukraine, they stop. Slovakia gets only 0.4 percent of its energy from wind and solar power. Instead, it is betting its energy transition on nuclear power.

The centerpiece of Slovakia’s nuclear power strategy is the Mochovce power plant, an orange and red building surrounded by eight giant cooling stacks. There used to be a village here, before the Soviet Union moved it in the 1980s to make way for the power plant. All that remains is a small embroidered church. Cars slide in and out of the guarded security gate, and the cooling chimneys blow a stream of water vapor into the air. Inside, workers are preparing a new reactor—where nuclear fission will take place—for commissioning in early 2023. The 471-megawatt unit, which has spent years in controversy, is expected to meet 13 percent of the country’s electricity needs, which Slovakia itself makes -sufficiently, according to Branislav Strýček, CEO of Slovenské Elektrárne, the company that manages the plant. Slovakia is expected to reach that milestone as its European neighbors look for energy supplies after cutting ties with Russia, a major exporter of natural gas.

Without Russian gas, Europe scrambled to avoid blackouts. Paris switches off the Eiffel Tower’s lights an hour early every day, Cologne has dimmed its street lights and Switzerland is considering a ban on electric cars. Proponents of nuclear power, such as Strýček, are using this moment to argue that Europe needs nuclear technology to keep the lights on without jeopardizing net-zero targets. “It provides a tremendous amount of safe, predictable, stable baseload, which renewables cannot provide,” he said at the World Utilities Congress in June.

The energy crisis is not a deal breaker in Europe’s nuclear debate, but in some countries it strengthens the pro-nuclear side of the argument, says Lukas Bunsen, head of research at the consulting company Aurora Energy Research. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany has announced it will keep the country’s three remaining nuclear power plants open until April 2023. Belgium has proposed keeping its nuclear plants running for another 10 years. In October, Poland had a agreement with the American company Westinghouse to build its first nuclear power plant.

But Europe remains deeply divided over the use of nuclear power. Of the European Union’s 27 member states, 13 generate nuclear power, while 14 do not. “It is still a very national debate,” says Bunsen. This means public attitudes can change drastically from one side of a border to the other. Polls show that 60 percent of Slovaks believe nuclear power is safe, while 70 percent of their neighbors in Austria oppose its use at all—the country has no active nuclear plants.

For the two neighbours, Mochovce has become a focal point in the debate on how Europe should transition away from fossil fuels. For supporters in Slovakia, Mochovce’s expansion – the launch of Unit Three is expected to be followed by Unit Four two years later – demonstrates how even a small country can become an energy heavyweight. Unit Three will make Slovakia the second largest producer of nuclear power in the EU, after France. But neighboring Austrians cannot ignore what they see as the downsides: the enormous costs of building or upgrading aging facilities, the problems associated with disposing of nuclear waste, and the sector’s dependence on Moscow for uranium, the fuel that powering the reactor. Last year, the EU imported one fifth of its uranium from Russia.

For years, politicians and activists in Austria have also claimed that Mochovce is not safe, with local newspapers using maps to illustrate how close Mochovce is to Vienna: just 150 kilometers. “This is a Soviet design from the 1980s, without a proper containment,” claims Reinhard Uhrig, an anti-nuclear campaigner at the Austrian environmental group GLOBAL 2000. The containment is one of a series of safety systems that prevent radioactive material from entering the environment is released in case of an accident. “Apart from these inherent design problems, there were major problems with the quality control of the works,” he says, describing nuclear power as a dangerous distraction from real solutions to the climate crisis.


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