Can nuclear power fix the Czech Republic’s dirty air problem?

The EU wants to give a green light to nuclear investments, in a move causing celebration in the Czech Republic.

 William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 04.01.2022 12:37:00 (updated on 04.01.2022) Reading time: 2 minutes

The Czech Republic is one of the bad boys of Europe when it comes to fighting climate change. The country is one of Europe’s worst CO2 emitters per capita, with only Luxembourg and Estonia sending more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per inhabitant. And despite an improvement recorded in 2020, Czech air quality has long been considered unsafe by regulators.

Politicians in the country have pursued nuclear power as the solution to high CO2 emissions levels. On New Year’s Eve, they were handed a major boost by Brussels. A new EU proposal to officially recognize nuclear and natural gas as “green” energy sources is likely to open up more opportunities for nuclear investments.

New Prime Minister Petr Fiala praised the move. “The European Commission’s proposal to include nuclear and natural gas among clean energy sources is a good sign. It is one of the keys to energy self-sufficiency,” he said.

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Former leader Andrej Babiš meanwhile described the importance of the “green” label for nuclear developments. “This is important for us. It is not possible for nuclear and gas to be energies that no one would want to finance. That would be a disaster for us.”

The Czech Republic is trying to transition away from old emissions-heavy energy sources like coal. Like most of Europe, the country has become dependent on natural gas imports to keep the lights on and homes warm. Most of Europe’s gas imports come from Russia; a worrying fact given that the Czech Republic was recently one of only two states officially listed by Moscow as “hostile countries.”

Instead, the Czech Republic has identified nuclear developments as the favored long-term solution to cutting CO2 emissions. The country’s two nuclear power plants, in Temelín and Dukovany, generated their second highest ever levels of energy in 2021 and an additional reactor is planned for construction at the Dukovany plant.

There are some objections to nuclear power as a long-term energy solution. Concerns are often raised about the disposal of nuclear waste. The EU’s proposal to include nuclear as a “green” energy option includes a requirement that new projects have a plan for dealing with radioactive waste in a way that protects the health of people living nearby.

Along with the safety aspect, there is also concern that new nuclear developments will not be able to contribute to cutting CO2 emissions for decades to come. Experts argue that a new Czech reactor will not start contributing energy to the grid until 2040.

The end of coal power will go a long way towards improving air quality, reducing health problems caused by pollution. The part which coal plays in poor air quality is shown in neighboring Poland, where coal power still accounts for a large majority of electricity generation. Poland was found to have some of the worst air in Europe by the European Environment Agency in 2020. Only Germany and Italy, countries with higher populations than Poland, recorded more premature deaths resulting from air pollution.

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Nuclear power brings its own problems. But the EU’s proposal to label it as a “green” energy source is a major step forward for the Czech Republic in its attempts to build up a non-fossil-fuel energy industry. With the proposal expected to become official by the end of this month, more investments in nuclear developments can be expected in Czechia in the future.

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