How the nuclear phaseout drives ecological modernization
With its 2050 vision for climate neutrality, the European Commission pursues a long-term strategy for a prosperous, modern, and competitive economy. The goal is to invest in technology, empower citizens, and align action in key areas such as industrial policy, finance, or research – while ensuring social fairness for a just transition.
For the road forward, the strategy identifies seven strategic areas, among them energy efficiency, the deployment of renewables, and a competitive industry and circular economy. The approach stresses the importance to develop and deploy new technologies. It focuses heavily on innovation. Yet achieving the goal of climate neutrality cannot be reached «only» by new technologies. New technologies alone do not necessarily replace old ones quickly enough. A strategy of ecological modernization will also require the phasing out of aging technologies, which are carbon-intensive or unsustainable. Thus, innovation must go hand in hand with «exnovation» – effective substitution – for the energy transition to be successful.
A key field in which exnovation will occur in Europe one way or the other is nuclear power. By 2050, all of Europe’s 130 nuclear reactors currently in operation are likely to close as they reach a critical geriatric age. Ninety reactors in Europe are 31 years old or even older. Europe thus faces a massive wave of reactor closures without properly harmonized policies in place for what experts refer to as decommissioning. In 2016, nuclear power provided around 25 percent of the net electricity generation in the EU. The expected closure of this generation capacity and the aim for climate neutrality by 2050 underlines the motivation behind the EU’s task to overhaul its energy system over the next decades completely.
This paper explores the interplay of exnovation and innovation within the strategy for ecological modernization. It will argue for a more holistic approach. Specifically, the paper looks at the challenges ahead for decommissioning nuclear power in Europe as part of the EU’s overall vision for a climate-neutral economy by 2050. Finally, the paper develops recommendations for policymakers, industry, and civil society to build up capacities for organized exnovation in the field of nuclear decommissioning.
The study has been published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and can be downloaded here.