ENERGY SECURITYCould Nuclear Power Cut Europe’s Dependence on Russian Energy?

By Lindsay Maizland

Published 18 March 2022

The war in Ukraine has set off a rush in Europe to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas. Some are calling for an expansion of nuclear power.

The European Union (EU) is working to reduce its dependence on Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine. Some commentators have pushed for the expansion of nuclear power, but many experts say the transition would take too long to have an impact in the next few years and would not necessarily reduce reliance on Russia. 

How Much Does Europe Depend on Russian Energy?
Many EU countries, though not all, rely on outside countries for their energy. Collectively, the bloc imported more than 60 percent of its energy in 2019. 

Much of that comes from Russia: the country provided 47 percent of the EU’s imported coal and other solid fuels, 41 percent of its imported natural gas, and 27 percent of its imported crude oil.

Russia is also a minor source of nuclear energy used by the EU. In 2020, 25 percent [PDF] of EU countries’ electricity came from nuclear power. France produced more than half of that, and non-EU countries Russia, Switzerland, and Ukraine together produced nearly a quarter.

Could Nuclear Power Be an Alternative Energy Source?
Today, about half of EU countries generate nuclear power. France has the most operable nuclear reactors, followed by Belgium and Spain. These countries could boost the power generation of existing reactors relatively quickly because most reactors do not normally run at full capacity. This was one of the solutions proposed by the International Energy Agency to reduce European reliance on Russian natural gas. 

However, it takes at least a decade to build a new nuclear power plant. “It’s not a solution for now,” says Kai Vetter, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. 

draft plan for reducing EU dependence on Russia recently released by the European Commission does not mention nuclear energy. Instead, it proposes partnering with other countries to diversify its gas supply; accelerating the rollout of renewables, which already generate more than a quarter of the EU’s electricity; and conserving energy, among other alternatives.