Last month, after weeks of negotiations, European Union leaders agreed to ban 90% of Russian oil imports by 2023. Until then, Russia will be able to continue selling millions of barrels of daily oil to the EU, with part of the proceeds continuing to fund the war. Dependence on this fuel has delayed a dignified and united condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and continues to interfere with the EU response.
There is a lesson for both the rest of Europe and the rest of the world: independence from Russian energy is the way to avoid another Ukraine.
France – where I live and work as an energy researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris – was unusual among EU countries in calling for swift and firm action. Although a now over election campaign means French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a particularly tough stance on Russia, France’s relative independence in oil and gas has certainly facilitated this. This independence stems from constant investments in nuclear energy since the 1960s; France produces 70% of its electricity from nuclear sources.
This drew criticism, especially after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan. German policymakers are instead calling for a slow transition to electricity produced from a mix of renewable energy sources, coal and gas.
Due to the reluctance to invest in nuclear energy, thanks to Fukushima – as well as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which took place in what is now Ukraine – the West did not developed a clear strategy on nuclear energy. The Generation IV International Forum, established in 2001, was the last major attempt to create a global nuclear research agenda. After the Fukushima accident, the forum took a back seat.
Meanwhile, a small number of countries have perfected their nuclear technologies. Russia builds more than 30% of new reactors in the world, mainly in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. China also builds around 30% of the reactors, most of them in China itself.
The new nuclear technologies are more practical and more agile than those that existed when the Generation IV forum was created. Small modular reactors—those with a total capacity of up to 300 megawatts—are particularly promising. They offer flexibility in terms of installation design and maintenance, as they can be replaced module by module. Small reactors could run alongside green power and fill capacity gaps.
Further advances in nuclear technology are more fundamental, both in terms of physics and the change it could represent for the industry. Fast neutron reactors operate with enough energy to cause many heavy atoms to fission, potentially eliminating both nuclear waste and reliance on uranium as the sole fuel source. These are just one of many fourth-generation nuclear reactor systems that together overcome some of the shortcomings of conventional facilities.
Russia and China are currently the only ones operating commercial power plants using these technologies – at China’s Shidaowan Power Station in Shandong and Beloyarsk-3 and -4 in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia.
Without clear political will, the EU risks becoming a sleepwalker in a world where Russia has technological control over nuclear technologies, as well as physical control over much of Europe’s fossil fuels.
Nuclear technologies could help the world move away from fossil fuels, accelerate the transition to cleaner energy sources and end the stranglehold of some undemocratic states on global energy markets. But building a nuclear power plant takes time. It can take ten years to build a country’s nuclear capability, especially when using new technologies. Construction of Beloyarsk-4 began in 2006; operations began in 2016.
Long-term thinking, continued public support and political will – both national and international – are needed. This will must last longer than any election campaign or political mandate and will be the only way to allow the construction of fourth generation technologies in democratic nations.
Many Western countries have both know-how in nuclear energy and experience in international cooperation. Together, they must build a cooperative framework to achieve commercial operation of fourth-generation plants to foster energy independence, while ensuring that citizens are both safe and informed about plant safety. modern commercial nuclear power plants.
Such cooperation would also send positive signals to both the nuclear industry and the financial sector that nations are serious about developing nuclear energy. Such a signal would precipitate funding for construction and new investment in nuclear technologies, and be a boon for a sector that has stagnated since Fukushima. This private interest must be accompanied by greater public investment in the sector.
Commitment to this major nuclear policy can only be accompanied by full public consultation on issues such as mining, waste management and safety.
To avoid another situation like that of Ukraine, the Western world must achieve permanent energy independence. One day, green technologies alone could achieve this, but we cannot afford to wait.
The author declares no competing interests.