Issue: January 2023, Goodbye, nuclear power – Unsustainable, uneconomical and high-risk

In Focus

No renaissance

The future of nuclear energy

The conversation went quiet for some time. However, the increasingly palpable effects of climate change and, not least, the impacts of the war in Ukraine on energy markets have rekindled the debate about nuclear power. There are calls in many quarters – expected and unexpected – for the use of this technology to continue, for lifetimes to be extended and even for new reactors to be built. But is renewing our reliance on nuclear power really worthwhile? What can we learn by looking at other countries and at new reactor designs? In short: does nuclear power have a future?

Anyone looking at the EU in 2022 might think that nuclear power was set to make a comeback. After all, nuclear energy is included in the EU taxonomy, which is intended to direct investment towards environmentally sustainable economic activities. Does this mean that nuclear power is a sustainable, future-fit technology? This has many people shaking their heads in disbelief. One of them is Dr Christoph Pistner, Head of the Nuclear Engineering and Facility Safety Division at the Oeko-Institut. “There are many sound reasons for phasing out nuclear power – and very few reasons for investing in this technology in the long term,” he says (for a more detailed discussion of the reasons for the phase-out, see “A twilight technology” on p. 4).

The EU taxonomy

So what prompted the European Commission to take this step? “The decision was based in part on a report by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), produced on behalf of the European Commission to assess whether nuclear energy can cause significant harm to human health and the environment. It concluded that nuclear energy does not cause significant harm and may therefore be promoted as a sustainable technology,” Dr Pistner explains. In its “Sustainability at risk” study, commissioned by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the Oeko-Institut reviewed the key arguments presented by the JRC. “The report fails to consider in sufficient depth key risks such as the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And judging solely by the risk of major accidents, nuclear energy cannot be classed as sustainable.” The Oeko-Institut also found that the JRC’s assessment of the potential impacts of major accidents was based on inadequate data and analyses, and very few indicators were used to assess these accidents. “For example, it did not consider the number of persons evacuated or relocated, land contamination, which can persist for very long periods of time, or the economic impacts. But unless these aspects are considered, the assessment is incomplete.” The nuclear energy expert also criticises the JRC’s failure to address the risks posed by the military use of civilian nuclear technology – in other words, the issue of proliferation. “Any deployment of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic impacts. An assessment of this kind must therefore also consider the risk that civilian nuclear technology will feed into countries’ nuclear weapons programmes.”

Granted, the German government also rejects the EU taxonomy’s classification of nuclear energy as sustainable. For Dr Christoph Pistner, however, this is not enough. He wants to see Germany making a significantly enhanced contribution to the debate about nuclear energy at the international level and asserting its position on the nuclear phase-out more vigorously. “If Germany – with all its expertise – were to champion the phase-out of nuclear power with conviction, other countries might then conclude that this is not a future-fit technology.”

Decommissioning and final storage

Even after its last remaining nuclear power plant is shut down, this will not mark the end of the debate about nuclear energy in Germany. Although decommissioning has already begun, it will take years to remove all traces of the reactors from the landscape. “There are also older installations such as heavily contaminated experimental reactors, which are currently in safe enclosure and whose decommissioning is not even at the planning stage yet,” Dr Pistner explains.

Germany will have to deal with the legacies of the nuclear age for some time – and one of the issues to be addressed is the establishment of a repository for high-level radioactive waste. Final storage of this waste in a geological repository is not scheduled to start in Germany for several decades. And the situation is not much better in other countries. “Very few countries have set out along this path so far. Sweden has approved the construction of a repository. France and Switzerland have identified a site. Finland is the only country with a firm timeline: it aims to open its repository in 2023.” Final storage is a multi-generational issue – not only due to the slow pace of the process. The nuclear waste will, after all, have to be stored safely and securely for at least one million years. “It is extremely important to ensure that there is a continued awareness of this issue and that the necessary know-how is not lost. We will continue to need experts with a knowledge of the technical aspects or of radiation protection, for example, for some time to come – not only for radioactive waste disposal but also for decommissioning.”

Nuclear energy worldwide

Germany needs this expertise also because other countries continue to rely on nuclear power. Reactors are still running; indeed, in some cases, new ones are being built. The EU has 104 nuclear power reactors, more than half of which are located in France – including several close to the German border. Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also rely on nuclear energy. “Continuous reviews of the safety of the installations and their upgrading requirements are essential – not least in Switzerland, which, along with India and the US, has the world’s oldest nuclear plants,” says Christoph Pistner. “France, for example, has not even implemented yet all the upgrading measures discussed after Fukushima.” On average, the world’s reactors are around 31 years old, rising to a staggering 37 years in Europe – which means that the risks associated with their operation are increasing. “The technology becomes more susceptible to breakdown due to wear and tear and material fatigue, so ongoing maintenance programmes are required to deal with these issues. This leads to prolonged and unscheduled stoppages. Added to that, safety standards are far more stringent today, and many older nuclear installations are not as well-protected as the newer plants.”

In addition, there are newcomers to nuclear energy, such as Egypt, Bangladesh and Turkey, which rely on cooperation with Russia. “This raises the question of whether these countries are entering into new dependencies – and whether they can genuinely depend on their contractual partners. After all, we are seeing how Russia, for example – a major player in the nuclear industry, incidentally – is using the energy supply as a tactical weapon in its war against Ukraine.”

The war raises another issue in relation to nuclear energy: in a situation such as this, are today’s nuclear power plants sufficiently safe and secure? “In the past, there was a tendency to rely on the idea that a military attack on a nuclear power plant was taboo – and that full protection against such an attack was neither possible nor necessary,” says Christoph Pistner. “But when you have a country like Russia – which develops and builds its own reactors – having no qualms about targeting these installations in a military conflict, the taboo has been broken. In the war against Ukraine, Russia seems to have accepted with equanimity that a major accident could occur at one of the reactors.” For that reason, international regulations and standards must now be reviewed to determine where improvements can and must be made in order to provide better protection for these facilities during combat operations.

New technologies

But what about the new Generation IV reactors, with their claims of lower costs and increased safety? Surely they are a reason to revisit the option of exiting the phase-out? The reactors currently on the market are Generation III reactors, which include the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR). “The Generation IV reactor designs claim to deliver a higher level of safety, improved economic performance and better fuel efficiency while addressing the problems of disposal and proliferation.” In Dr Pistner’s expert opinion, however, these claims are “completely spurious”. “The problem is that none of the existing designs provides solutions to all the relevant issues. What’s more, the developers themselves acknowledge that the Generation IV reactors will not be market-ready until at least 2045 – far too late to achieve the climate neutrality that the world is striving for.”

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are among the other technologies currently under discussion. They have an electrical power output of 1.5 to 300 MW instead of the 1000-1600 MW capacity typical of today’s power plants. According to their proponents, they pose less of a risk, partly because they have a smaller radioactive inventory.

In an expert report commissioned by the German Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE), entitled Sicherheitstechnische Analyse und Risikobewertung einer Anwendung von SMR-Konzepten (Safety analysis and risk assessment of the application of SMR concepts), the Oeko-Institut investigated SMRs in detail. “At present, they are often described as the future of nuclear energy, but their development actually dates back to the 1950s.” In cooperation with TU Berlin and Physikerbüro Bremen, the Oeko-Institut carried out a scientific assessment of SMR concepts, including the associated safety issues and risks. “Overall, SMRs pose the same problems in relation to nuclear power as larger reactors; at best, they simply offer improvements in specific problem areas,” says Christoph Pistner. “At the same time, it is unclear whether they genuinely work and, above all, whether they really do have the potential to generate power more cheaply than today’s nuclear power plants.” And for SMRs to be economically viable, they would have to be produced in their thousands. “Who is meant to invest here, given that it is not clear whether a market for SMRs actually exists? And if large numbers of SMRs are constructed, this would of course increase the overall risk.”

Dr Pistner has yet to come across any design or concept which convinces him that nuclear energy has a future; this includes partitioning and transmutation – a process of separating radioactive waste and reprocessing some fractions in reactors. “Even if these processes do work when scaled up – and that’s highly debatable – they will be extremely complex and costly. And a repository will still be required.” As he sees it, nuclear energy therefore has an expiry date, not only in Germany. “I expect this to be a drawn-out departure,” he says. “The lifetimes of the existing reactors can no longer be extended at will – and new plants are simply too expensive.”


Dr Christoph Pistner is a physicist and Head of the Nuclear Engineering and Facility Safety Division at the Oeko-Institut, where his work includes the preparation of studies and expert opinions on nuclear regulations and facility safety. He is the Vice Chairman of Germany’s Reactor Safety Commission (RSK).

Current information on

In Germany, the debate about nuclear energy is lively and wide-ranging. The Oeko-Institut contributes continuously to this debate by sharing its expertise, e.g. via studies on topics such as the current energy crisis, the much-discussed contributions of nuclear power and the risks of stretchout operation. Visit the Oeko-Institut blog for up-to-date information about the current debates, forthcoming policy decisions and the latest developments. -

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