Nuclear Energy: a Geopolitical Specter?

22 Desember 2021

The new Dutch government was set on ringing in its term with a veritable bang when it announced that it may construct two new nuclear reactors in what could be a radical departure from Amsterdam’s previously more nuclear-skeptic stance. The move is meant to help the Netherlands cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% come 2030, compared with 1990 levels, with a broader view towards achieving climate neutrality by 2060. By turning towards the “taboo” topic of nuclear energy, the Dutch coalition is swimming against the stream of (most) European politics, where nuclear power is currently under renewed criticism, ranging from questions about its viability and its possible role in geopolitical maneuvering.

Particularly the latter question comes from an unexpected direction – Finland – one of the most openly pro-nuclear governments in the EU. In October, the country’s Defence Ministry called for “a risk assessment to be carried out on the controversial Hanhikivi 1 nuclear power plant”, citing economic and geopolitical risks deriving from Rosatom’s involvement in the project. Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear vendor, is part of the Fennovoima consortium overseeing Hanhikivi’s construction.

“Given the recent geopolitical tensions, many Western countries are viewing Russia and China with greater skepticism when it comes to supplying significant nuclear technologies,” says Rauli Partanen, an energy analyst and author from Finland. Indeed, the dichotomy between nuclear suppliers from OECD and non-OECD countries is becoming a growing topic in the energy sector, especially when state-backed companies from Russia or China are involved. The argument usually advanced against entering into nuclear technology and supply agreements with companies from such countries is that it creates multi-decadal dependences between supplier and recipient that could expose the latter to political pressure when expedient.

Yet international experts agree that no clear evidence exists to date that nuclear technology has been used in such a way. For example, a 2020 report on the geopolitics of nuclear energy concluded that, while nuclear exports do establish long-term commercial ties, they hardly qualify as an effective tool for foreign policy leverage. This can be attributed to the fact that this level of engagement relies on mutual trust and the supplier’s ability to deliver. Indeed, if a supplier were to breach that trust, the far-reaching reputational damage sustained by the industry would be dire, to the extent that it could undermine an entire country’s export strategy.

This means that risk is, at best, very low – not least because it should come as no surprise that avoiding such reputational hits is a priority for countries exporting nuclear technology, which in itself serves to minimize the risk of undue geopolitical leveraging. If not, countries like Russia “would greatly disadvantage its own industry, credibility and reputation” going forward. Expert Partanen adds that most of the risk is contained in the delivery if the plant is to be operated by domestic actors, and points out that “having large and long-lasting projects and cooperation also helps decrease certain risks through mutually beneficial activities”, thereby helping to offset some of the perceived risks involved.

In its assessment call, Finland’s Defence Ministry pointed to Russia as the provider of Hanhikivi 1’s nuclear fuel as a specific energy security hazard, despite the fact that the supply of nuclear fuel is not subject to the same rigidity as that of other fuel sources, such as gas. A look to Ukraine illustrates that point. As Partanen noted, “NPPs in Ukraine kept receiving fuel from Russia” despite tensions between these two countries, and “Ukraine has since arranged to supply their fuel from elsewhere.”

On a broader note, the geopolitics debate has the unfortunate effect of obscuring the wider benefits of nuclear new-built in a given country. This begins with reduced external dependencies on fossil fuels – that is, a major step towards energy security and resilience – and ends at the development of industrial expertise, regardless of the vendor’s nationality: “nuclear expertise offers much more than just energy”, Partanen elaborates, “like nuclear medicine and isotopes, irradiation of food for better shelf-life, and many industrial innovations” with significant spill-over effects to other industries and sectors.

There are several long-term implications of this. If fighting climate change is a priority, then nuclear energy must be part of the solution. The Dutch, along with the Poles, seem to have realized this. But surprisingly, even the German general public has begun to change its mind on nuclear, albeit slowly. According to a survey conducted by the opinion research institute Civey on 15 October, roughly 60% of respondents answered positively to the question “Should Germany rely more on nuclear power again to ensure the success of the energy transition” (“yes definitely” and “rather yes”).

Such results are indicative of a growing dichotomy between political and popular attitudes towards nuclear technology, contrary to rhetoric by certain activists that the world is broadly leaving nuclear behind. Partanen observes, “Many more countries are looking into entering nuclear than are considering getting out of nuclear,” which will only contribute to diversifying the nuclear market: “The countries that retain and focus on their domestic nuclear expertise will find good opportunities to export their services and expertise into the newcomer countries.”

There is evident need for Europe to step up to the plate on nuclear. The European nuclear industry has suffered from lackluster support for years, which has only helped to reinforce the concentration of nuclear export activity in the US, Russia and China. According to the recent study of London-based think-tank New Nuclear Watch Institute this should not be regarded as deliberate geopolitical, anti-competitive ploy, but rather “the predictable evolution of a high-entry, high-fixed cost industry in which repeat, reliable sales are a core driver of industrial competitiveness.”

Finland is now considering making Hanhikivi’s licensing dependent on the outcome of the risk assessment. Given the current climate imperatives, Helsinki would be well advised to grant the building license rather sooner than later.

Image credit: Fennovoima/Wikimedia Commons. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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