The year 2023 certainly was an eventful one for global nuclear power. Most, but not all, of the news was very positive, as nuclear energy’s contribution to economic stability and protecting the environment is becoming more widely recognized. One major, but not unexpected, negative development was Germany’s decision to shutter the last of its operating reactors. Here, we look at the nuclear energy philosophies in two countries and one U.S. state: Germany, which has decided to abandon nuclear, Sweden, which had entertained the idea of abandoning nuclear but instead is re-embracing it; and, Georgia, a U.S. state which has steadfastly supported the expansion of nuclear despite the high costs of bringing a new generation reactor online.
It has been well documented that Germany has abandoned nuclear power, shutting down the last of its reactors last April. What makes this decision even more puzzling, given Germany’s environmental movement, is a German government decision last October to authorize coal plants to come back online until March 2024 as the country faces energy shortages this winter, especially considering that Germany burns lignite (dirty coal). The nuclear shutdown and coal reinstatement decisions demonstrate the strength of Germany’s anti-nuclear lobby, which is carrying the day despite ongoing developments on the world stage that highlight the need for energy security and environmental protection.
At the same time Germany has shuttered its nuclear power program, its economy is in a state of decline. In fact, according to the IMF, Germany was the only major economy to experience negative growth in 2023. A recent Wall Street Journal article documented this decline, noting that Germany’s economy is sliding into stagflation. Among the reasons for this noted in the article are increasing energy costs, impacted by Germany’s decision to shut down its nuclear power plants. Thus, not only is Germany embarking on a worsening environmental situation following the decision to shutter its reactors, but it is also facing a declining economy.
Sweden, like Germany, is a country with a very strong environmental movement and one that is very dependent on energy-intensive manufacturing. The country has been described as an historically anti-nuclear nation with a strong environmental movement. However, after some fits and starts, Sweden has elected to go a different route on nuclear energy, opting not to shutter its reactors but instead planning to add ten large reactors in the next 20 years. Sweden is also planning to lift its ban on uranium mining.
When I was at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I created and edited The Nuclear Fuel Market Quarterly, to which other SAIC employees and outside experts contributed. (Industry contributors included Tom Neff and Jim Glasgow, among others.) One article, written by Dr. Barbara Black, was entitled, “Can Sweden Afford to Abandon Nuclear Power?” Dr. Black, who was an Energy Analyst at SAIC’s Energy Information Services Division, wrote her PhD. dissertation on Swedish electric power production. Her article stressed the importance of nuclear power for Sweden and examined the politics of nuclear power in the country, documenting the shifting political winds, characterized by both a strong environmental movement and a strong anti-nuclear faction. The conflict between these two movements was noted by Ingvar Carlsson, the Swedish Prime Minister at the time, who opined that the Swedish Parliament could not meet its carbon dioxide reduction goals if it began to decommission nuclear plants.
A most telling paragraph of the article, written in 1990, and a cautionary tale for Germany was the following:
Nuclear power has been a technical and economic success in Sweden. It will be impossible to replace nuclear plants without increasing the cost of electricity sharply. Some estimates indicate increases of as much as 70 percent in real terms. Such steep increases will affect major industries such as paper and steel. It will make energy-intensive exporting industries much less competitive in their international sales. The government must address labor organization concern about job losses if industries cut back or cease operations.
Although this drama has taken a long time to play out, Sweden has opted to not only keep but also expand nuclear power going forward. In Sweden’s case, environmental concerns, coupled with economic imperatives, won out over antinuclear sentiments, unlike the situation in Germany. This decision was likely aided by heightened concerns about energy security stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the associated negative impact on energy supplies.
You might wonder why we included the U.S. state of Georgia in this country comparison (besides it being our home state), but Georgia, even though it is one of fifty U.S. states, is quite close to Sweden in terms of economic output and dependence on nuclear energy. Sweden has a GDP of $586 billion (as of 2022) and depends on nuclear power for roughly 30% of its electricity output via six operating reactors. The annual economic output of Georgia was $592 billion in 2022 and nuclear power accounted for 27% of its electricity output in in 2021, but it is obviously now higher with last year’s startup of Vogtle 3. When Vogtle 4 (the sixth reactor to begin operating in Georgia) comes online, nuclear’s contribution will increase perhaps to around 40%.
There is no question that the Vogtle 3 & 4 project was expensive and significantly delayed, but Georgia will likely benefit from the plant’s output for the rest of this century. Because of a strong electricity infrastructure, Georgia’s economy is growing and is attracting more and more manufacturing to the state. Along these lines, Hyundai is building a $5.5 billion electric vehicle manufacturing facility near Savannah and is also teaming with other South Korean companies to build two battery plants in the state at a combined cost of over $8 billion. The availability of nuclear power coupled with the construction of EV and battery facilities represent a double win for the environment as well as the economy.
There clearly is a relationship between nuclear energy installation and the abatement of carbon dioxide and other clean air benefits. There is certainly a strong correlation between nuclear power and energy security, and likewise between energy security and economic growth. It will be interesting to track the growth of the economies of Sweden and Georgia versus that of Germany in future years. It is difficult to imagine that Germany will be able to achieve the requisite energy and environmental security without nuclear energy. On the other hand, Sweden and Georgia are guaranteeing their future by supporting existing and new nuclear reactors. Once established, the payouts from nuclear reactors extend many decades into the future. Germany has eliminated this benefit from its economy and environment, perhaps forever.
Jeff Combs is founder, owner, and Chairman of UxC, LLC (UxC) and is a leading expert in the nuclear fuel market, with over 45 years of experience providing economic analysis and forecasting for the front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle. He has extensive and varied expertise, overseeing UxC market reports, providing strategic consulting to major commercial companies in the nuclear fuel industry, and advising governments and international organizations on market and policy issues. Under his management, UxC has grown to become the world’s pre-eminent nuclear fuel market information and analysis company, issuing reports and publishing prices for all front-end nuclear fuel markets. In 2007, UxC teamed with CME/NYMEX to introduce the world’s first uranium futures contract. That same year UxC began reporting on the backend of the fuel cycle. In 2018, Mr. Combs created the atompeace.org website to advance understanding of peaceful uses of the atom in today’s world. During his career, Mr. Combs has presented papers at a variety of nuclear industry and energy economics conferences throughout the world. In addition, he has had his work published in academic and public policy journals. Mr. Combs earned a bachelor's degree in Economics at the University of Virginia, where he also completed his doctoral course work in economics. He is a charter member of the International Association of Energy Economics and is a member of the American Nuclear Society.