Transatlantic Cooperation: US and Europe in the Nuclear Energy Race

"Europe's nuclear renaissance could strengthen transatlantic ties," analysis by energy security experts

by Sededin Dedovic
Transatlantic Cooperation: US and Europe in the Nuclear Energy Race
© Lennart Preiss / Getty Images

Czechia and the Netherlands are building four new nuclear power plants. Poland, after years of delays, is set to open its first fully operational nuclear power plant. Sweden has shifted its energy policy from "100 percent renewable" to "100 percent fossil-free," overturning the national referendum against nuclear energy from 1980 and paving the way for the construction of at least two large-scale reactors by 2035.

Efforts to build large and small reactors are driving this European nuclear renaissance, writes Maciej Filip Bukowski, an expert on climate diplomacy and energy security, in an analysis for CEPA. The goal, he states, is to help Europe complete its separation from Russian energy while also meeting climate change targets.

However, the revival remains fragile, threatened by Germany's anti-nuclear stance and the continued reliance on uranium controlled by the Kremlin. Europeans until recently considered nuclear toxic. Not only did the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima scare Europeans, but the technology also seemed too expensive and complicated.

Finland ordered a 1.6-gigawatt reactor from a consortium led by France's Areva-Siemens that was supposed to be opened in 2009. But technological problems and cost overruns hampered the project. The original price of three billion euros rose to 11 billion euros, according to World Nuclear Industry data for 2019, and the plant was only opened in 2022.

The French company Electricite de France faced similar delays and cost overruns with its Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in the United Kingdom.

The Hinkley B building is pictured near to the construction site of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station being built near B© Matt Cardy / Getty Images

These stories were cautionary tales.

As cost estimates proved unreliable, financing large nuclear projects became problematic and challenging. Nuclear power plants are always a multi-stakeholder endeavor, with dozens of involved entities from the public and private sectors.

In my past professional life, when I worked as a lawyer in international infrastructure disputes, the Finnish Olkiluoto project was a poster child for all the things that can go wrong in project financing. The war in Ukraine has changed the landscape.

Governments are now less concerned about costs and more about energy supply reliability and meeting net-zero targets. After decades of divestment, the American nuclear industry has returned. A new plant opened in Georgia last August, and American nuclear technology is now competing internationally.

The American nuclear behemoth, Westinghouse, won over French and Korean bids to build Poland's first nuclear power plant. While Paris and Seoul might secure a part of the deal in the second phase of Warsaw's nuclear plan, Washington's position is secured with the US Department of Energy launching its first regional clean energy training center in Poland.

The initiative provides a solid foundation for transatlantic business cooperation, regardless of who wins this year's White House race. The US is also taking a leading role in the developing market of small modular reactors, which can power up to 300 MW per unit, about one-third of the production capacity of traditional nuclear reactors.

They are physically a fraction of the size of conventional nuclear reactors and aim to be quicker, cheaper, and safer. Since they are modular, their components are factory-assembled and transported for on-site assembly. The global race to develop small reactors is underway.

The US government launched Project Phoenix to export American technology, with Europe as a key target. Small reactors not only reduce costs. They shift financing and administration from the central government to the local or private sector.

In Poland, for example, the nuclear debate is increasingly about how to shift that burden from taxpayers to the private sector. Small reactors could help by supplementing but not replacing large reactors. Several obstacles could disrupt transatlantic nuclear hopes.

Doubts remain about whether small modular reactors will truly be a silver bullet. The competition from renewable sources like wind and solar, which are becoming more cost-effective, challenges the economic viability of nuclear energy.

Supply chain problems, such as shortages of critical materials and skilled workers, and fluctuating energy prices, are additional concerns. However, the primary threat to Europe's nuclear future may come from internal politics.

In Brussels, a bitter battle has erupted over whether EU climate change funds should be allowed for nuclear energy. Germany leads the anti-nuclear stance. Last year, it shut down its remaining nuclear power plants, and Berlin is ready to open gas plants to compensate for the lost nuclear capacity.

Another challenge concerns Russia. The state-owned Rosatom controls half of the global uranium processing and enrichment and holds about two-thirds of the reactor export market. Russian nuclear experts are working with the French and Germans on preparing Russian fuel rod conversion, currently awaiting approval from German authorities.

Rosatom is also a major player in the US uranium market. The Biden administration has targeted it with US sanctions. Despite these obstacles, the war in Ukraine and the need to cut the umbilical cord to Russian gas should enable Europe to renuclearize.

Anti-nuclear political opposition is waning, even in Germany. If the opposition Christian Democrats return to power, they pledge to immediately resume nuclear power plant operations. The end of the war in Ukraine could further boost nuclear energy.

Ukraine itself wants to add four new blocks, including the third and fourth reactors at the Khmelnytskyi nuclear power plant. The expansion aims to compensate for the loss of the Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe's largest nuclear facility, now under Russian control.

Kyiv believes nuclear facilities are less likely to become bombing targets in war due to the catastrophic environmental and geopolitical consequences of a potential release of radioactive material.