City of Vienna Warns of Nuclear Renaissance and Small Modular Reactors in Europe

PeoplePoliticians ♦ Published: March 4, 2024; 18:58 ♦ (Vindobona)

In a recent statement, Vienna City Councillor for Climate Action Jürgen Czernohorszky, who is also Chairman of the Cities for Nuclear Free Europe (CNFE) initiative, is critical of Sweden's nuclear power plans, the situation, and the development of Small Modular Reactors in Europe.

Jürgen Czernohorszky, Vienna's Climate City Councillor and Chairman of Cities for Nuclear Free Europe (CNFE), is concerned about the Swedish government's plans to build two new reactors by 2035. / Picture: © PID / Votava

The Swedish government has announced its intention to build two new reactors by 2035, with further units in the future. Vienna's Climate City Councilor and Chairman of Cities for Nuclear Free Europe (CNFE), Jürgen Czernohorszky, is concerned about this development in Sweden.

Czernohorszky considers a nuclear renaissance in Europe to be "absolutely unrealistic" and emphasizes the high costs and environmental risks of nuclear power. "Nuclear power is many times more expensive and it takes around 20 years to complete a new reactor in Europe. Apart from the massive environmental impact - nuclear power will not be able to stop climate change!" says Czernohorszky.

The plans also include the resumption of uranium mining in Sweden, which, according to Vienna's environmental lawyer Iris Tichelmann, would entail considerable ecological interference and the risk of groundwater contamination. In a letter to the Swedish ministries, Czernohorszky made it clear that nuclear power is not CO2-neutral and is not a solution in the fight against climate change. He points to the long construction times and high costs of nuclear power plants as well as the risk of serious accidents.

A critical study on new reactors

The aforementioned study, which was commissioned by the Vienna Environmental Ombudsman's Office and written by scientists Oda Becker, Kurt Decker, Manfred Mertins, and Gabriele Mraz, deals with the planned Small Modular Reactors (SMR) in Poland, in particular the BWRX-300 reactor type. It emphasizes that no SMRs have yet been completed worldwide and doubts the propagated advantages in terms of economic efficiency and safety. Concerns are expressed regarding environmental compatibility, in particular the disposal of radioactive waste, as well as safety risks due to possible accidents and acts of sabotage. The study recommends a comprehensive environmental assessment and emphasizes the need for transparent communication about the risks and safety measures of this technology.

As an example of the inefficiency of nuclear energy projects, the Climate City Council cites the delays and cost explosions in new construction projects in the UK, France, and the Czech Republic. For example, the completion of the British Hinkley Point C project had to be postponed by five years to 2030, at a total cost of around 40 billion euros. In France, the Flamenville 3 reactor, which has been under construction for 17 years, is another example of the problem, with current costs of 19 billion euros.

Czernohorszky emphasizes the need to take effective measures against climate change that can be implemented quickly and point to the expansion of renewable energies as a priority for Vienna. He also criticizes the discussion about small modular reactors (SMR) in Europe, which are advertised as a more cost-effective alternative but have not yet progressed beyond prototypes. A report by an international panel of experts on an SMR project being discussed in Poland confirms these concerns.

Small Modular Reactors as a solution?

In the discussion about the future of energy generation and the fight against climate change, small modular reactors are at the center of an intense debate. However, the statement by the Vienna Climate City Council and the CNFE also underlines the deep skepticism about the use of nuclear power and SMRs. This technological innovation, characterized by its modular design and potential cost efficiency, is seen by some as the key to solving the energy problems of the future. However, opinions on SMRs are deeply divided. Instead of SMRs, the case is often made for an increased focus on renewable energy to tackle the climate crisis.

Proponents of SMRs argue that this technology represents significant advances over traditional large-scale reactors. The modular design makes it possible to produce reactors in factories and then transport them to the site, which could not only reduce construction costs but also shorten construction times. In addition, SMRs are claimed to have more advanced safety features due to their design and smaller size. Passive cooling systems and the ability to install underground are cited as measures that could minimize the risk of serious accidents.

Another argument in favor of SMRs is their flexibility and scalability, allowing them to be installed in different locations and sizes. This adaptability makes them potentially suitable for remote or infrastructurally less developed regions where the construction of large power plant infrastructures is not practical. In addition, some experts see SMRs as a bridging technology that can support the transition to renewables by providing a reliable, low-carbon energy source that helps stabilize the power grid.

Nevertheless, there are weighty counter-arguments. Critics, such as those in the study commissioned by the Vienna Environmental Ombudsman's Office, emphasize the unresolved questions regarding environmental compatibility, particularly in the area of waste disposal. Despite claims of improved safety features, the risk of serious accidents and the threat of potential acts of sabotage remain. In addition, there are concerns about the actual cost and time savings, as no SMRs have yet been completed worldwide, casting doubt on the industry's optimistic forecasts.

Another critical point is the need for transparent and comprehensive risk communication. The public must be made aware of the potential risks and safety measures of SMRs to facilitate an informed and balanced debate. This requires an open discussion of the technical, economic, and environmental challenges posed by this technology.

The discussion about SMRs is an example of the complexity of decision-making in energy policy. It underlines the need to consider both the short-term needs of energy supply and the long-term goals of environmental and climate protection. While SMRs have the potential to contribute to diversifying energy sources and reducing carbon emissions, the associated risks and challenges need to be carefully weighed. In this sense, a comprehensive and transparent assessment of the pros and cons of SMRs is essential to make informed political and economic decisions that ensure both energy security and the protection of our planet.

City of Vienna