Europe’s Nuclear Power Dilemma: Are Old Plants Safe Enough?
Twelve years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, an alarming series of events has reignited concerns over the safety of Europe’s aging nuclear plants. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has repeatedly caused power outages at the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest. Meanwhile, Europe’s other nuclear reactors are on average 36.6 years old, and cracks have recently been detected in several of them. Energy specialists warn that the combination of climate change and old plants could pose a serious threat to the 103 nuclear reactors in the EU, producing about a quarter of the bloc’s electricity. The reliance on aging nuclear power plants presents a dilemma, as France’s Nuclear Safety Authority acknowledges it would be unsustainable to construct enough new reactors before 2050, when the EU aims to become a net-zero energy system.
Jan Haverkamp, an expert on nuclear energy and energy policy at Greenpeace, warns that the chances of a major accident like Fukushima are now “realistic” and that Europe is not adequately prepared. Irwin Redlener, an expert in disaster medicine, notes that while we have learned from Fukushima, we are not applying those lessons in terms of preparing for large-scale disasters such as nuclear incidents. The population density around these facilities also poses a significant risk, with population densities around nuclear reactors in Europe much higher than around Fukushima.
As the backbone of the EU’s future zero-carbon electricity system, European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson asserts that nuclear power is a real solution but admits that it depends on older plants to keep running. While retrofits of aging plants can reduce risks, France’s nuclear safety watchdog declared earlier in the year that a “systemic review” is necessary to anticipate new challenges posed by climate change. Amidst the debate, stakeholders must grapple with a fundamental question: Are old nuclear power plants safe enough for Europe and its people?