2 March 2022

How the battle for energy independence was lost


‘The lamps are going out all over Europe,’ – so said Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of the First World War, but it is perhaps even more literally the case today.

As German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock noted last week, ‘We buy 50% of our coal from Russia. If we exclude Russia from SWIFT the lights in Germany will go out’.

This caused outrage on social media, but for the wrong reasons. Losing access to electricity is a big deal: blackouts are serious and harm human health. The poor decision-making which has made these countries dependent on a dictator is another issue – and one that should incense us all.

What went wrong? Germany and Italy chose to phase out their nuclear power stations, opting to become reliant on Russian imports instead. 

Fossil fuels are not safe or clean – they are causing the destruction of our planet and doing immense harm to our wellbeing. It seems obvious, but while people nod along when you say it, the minute you suggest that, just maybe, nuclear is a better alternative, the conversation changes. 

Not a week goes by when I don’t get called a ‘shill’ for the nuclear industry. I don’t work for the industry, but when accused I always ask why people think it is so bad. We know that the fossil fuel industry has been funding climate change denial for years, that they knew that their products were driving climate change and hid the facts, and that we continue to be dependent on fossil fuels that are destroying the planet. Is the nuclear industry as bad as that?

Russian influence

This hyper-emotional narrative and negativity around nuclear energy is not accidental. We have known for years that Russia worked with environmentalists overseas to oppose fracking to weaken energy independence of other nations, and it’s not a stretch to say that this is likely true of nuclear energy as well. One scientist recently did make such a claim on mainstream television. Whether or not it is true, the fossil fuel industry knows that nuclear power can displace it, and they have taken up the rallying cry for renewables with gusto, because they know that fossil fuels will still be needed as a backup if nations ban nuclear power.

The oil lobby has fought against nuclear for years. In 2017, across 16 states in America, mysterious local climate action groups called Citizens Against Nuclear Bailouts popped up. They heavily targeted a micro-identified group of Americans with direct leaflets, phone calls, and Facebook ads, calling on them to support the shutdown of nuclear power plants. But they weren’t actually groups of concerned citizens at all. The campaign was, in fact, created and led by the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying champion for oil and natural-gas companies. 

Meanwhile, the day that Putin declared war against Ukraine, European utilities announced that they would be buying more Russian gas via Ukrainian pipelines

Green Party member and Belgian Minister of Energy, Tinne Van der Straeten, who is stauchly against nuclear power, previously worked for the law firm that defended Russian gas giant Gazprom’s interests. Van der Straeten argues for a Belgian future run by 100% renewables, but omits the fact that they will remain reliant on gas imports.

Belgium’s seven nuclear reactors are due to be shut down by 2025. They currently provide half of the country’s electricity and will be replaced by gas-fired power stations to fill the energy gap.

Then there’s former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who began the phase-out of nuclear power plants in Germany, and was later elected to Gazprom’s board of directors. Schroeder, who led Germany from 1998 to 2005, developed a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he was chancellor. In a recent interview Schroeder accused Ukraine, rather than Russia, of ‘sabre-rattling’ and he also insisted Russia was not interested in military intervention. Despite a barrage of criticism, even today he has still not cut his ties to the Kremlin, prompting members of his office staff to resign in protest.

It didn’t have to be this way. In the 1960s, the far-sighted French government, concerned about its reliance on imported petroleum, decided to build more nuclear power stations. Today they have energy independence and one of the lowest carbon footprints in Europe, because over 70% of their electricity comes from nuclear power. Had every country followed this example, climate change might never have become the crisis it is today.  

For some time it looked like the future would be atomic, with clean, cheap and abundant energy for all. What changed?

‘Green’ lobbying

For decades now there has been a concerted lobbying effort from environmental groups against nuclear energy.

In 1969 big oil gave a founding donation of $200,000 to start an environmental group called Friends of the Earth set up to oppose nuclear energy. This start-up money was provided by the owner of Atlantic Richfield oil company. One of FoE’s first major campaigns was to protest against nuclear power.

Another major anti-nuclear environmental group, The Sierra Club, accepted over $25 million in donations from the gas industry, mostly from Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest gas drilling companies in America. 

Other major NGOs, like Greenpeace, have long lobbied against nuclear energy all over the world. Greenpeace’s Battle of Grids strategy proposes gradual replacement of nuclear power by fossil gas plants to provide ‘flexible backup for wind and solar power’. The NGO has its own energy company, which is misleadingly named ‘ProWindGas’, while actually selling 99% gas to consumers.

The results of the misinformation through the many resulting protests against nuclear power have been significant. As new nuclear was blocked, fossil fuels grew, and greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution soared. As a result, air pollution now kills an estimated 8 million people a year

Rejecting science

Today, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and 5G conspiracy theorists all share a common feature with anti-nuclear campaigners. They reject the scientific consensus that organisations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and United Nations (UN) represent, which is that we need nuclear energy, along with renewables, to decarbonise. One of the world’s leading climate scientists, Dr James Hansen, says: ‘Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them’.

Another long-standing argument the green movement has made is to use less energy, and people are still rallying behind this cry today. But the reality is that in a warming world we are going to need to use more electricity, not less: for example through mass air conditioning to enable people to live in drastically warming climates, desalination plants for regions that experience frequent drought, and so on.

It’s vital that European nations reopen their prematurely shut nuclear power plants, and plan to quickly build more. Germany should at least have stopped the phase out of its three remaining power plants, but has instead already stated that it will not do so. Belgium should also stop its phase out and countries should start planning for the future and end their bans on nuclear energy.

Italy, Germany and other European governments have already been importing nuclear energy from France to meet their energy needs. We should be outraged about this when they had perfectly functional nuclear reactors at home that were closed in knee-jerk reactions – or for more nefarious reasons. Taking these measures would not only decrease our reliance on Russian gas, but would also bring down emissions.

Ultimately, if you oppose nuclear power, wind turbines or solar panels, now is the time to stop. Whatever you think the risks are, dependence on a dictator is worse.

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Zion Lights is Director of Emergency Reactor.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.