home Nuclear Attitude, Pending Reactors, U The Netherlands, Facing Energy And Climate Crises, Bets On A Nuclear Revival

The Netherlands, Facing Energy And Climate Crises, Bets On A Nuclear Revival

This isn’t the country’s first attempt at an atomic renaissance. Will the Dutch actually make it work this time?

The Netherlands ― On this windswept peninsula near the Belgian border, the trees grow shrubby and the dune grasses bow horizontally before the North Sea’s gusts. But along the coast, industrial spires rise vertically, defying nature and creating a skyline of steeples to the rival faiths in this country’s energy future.

Ivory-colored wind turbines bristle from flat meadows. Gray smokestacks reach skyward from an oil refinery’s bramble of metal pipes. Steel pylons tower over the salt-sprayed landscape, fringing the two-lane road with a garland of high-voltage power lines.

Yet for half a century, the steadiest emission-free energy here has come from inside what looks like a stubby, dull-looking grain silo.

That’s the Borssele Nuclear Power Station, the only full-scale commercial reactor the Dutch ever built. Opened in 1973, the complex machine for capturing the energy from split uranium atoms was the second reactor built in the country, and it provides about 3% of the Netherlands’ electricity. It’s relatively small compared to other plants of the time, as it was originally planned as the first of six in this area. But that was back in fission electricity’s midcentury glory days, before Chernobyl and Fukushima transformed from far-flung place names into synonyms for catastrophe that compelled many nations to abandon their atomic ambitions and embrace fossil fuels.

The Borssele reactor’s lonely 49 years may soon come to an end.

If the plant were 100 miles east, in Germany, or a mere 10 miles south, in Belgium, that would almost certainly mean that the reactor ― despite currently having regulatory permits to operate for at least 12 more years ― was shutting down early. But unlike its two closest neighbors, which have rapidly decommissioned their own nuclear stations while squeamishly burning more gas and coal, the Netherlands plans to build at least two new reactors in the coming years.
The Borssele Nuclear Power Station.
The Borssele Nuclear Power Station.

The Dutch government’s proposal, which names this site as one of three potential locations for the nation’s next reactors, represents a rare bet on traditional nuclear power at a time when more countries are closing existing plants than opening new ones.

Nuclear power is by far the most efficient source of electricity. Thanks to stringent regulations around the world, it’s also among the safest. Flight crews on high-altitude airline routes are on average exposed to about five times more radiation than workers at nuclear plants. No country has completed a permanent disposal facility for radioactive waste yet, but several such sites are underway, and, regardless, there is a relatively small amount of spent fuel in the world.

Most deaths involving nuclear energy stem from construction accidents. Even after combining the two infamous disasters in Ukraine and Japan with every worker known to have died mining or milling uranium, the total deaths linked to nuclear power over the past 80 years rank just above wind and solar when compared to the volume of energy produced. By contrast, just the fine air pollution from burning fossil fuel is responsible for 1 in 5 premature deaths worldwide each year, Harvard University scientists found last year. And that’s not counting industrial accidents or the ever-widening toll of climate change.

For decades, visions of mushroom clouds, scenes of Homer Simpson in the nuclear control room and images of radiation-blistered skin have made the improbable seem inevitable. But with planet-heating emissions soaring, once-rare floods, droughts and heatwaves are compounding to make the biblical look literal. And the Dutch, struggling to meet their climate goals, may finally be ready to invest seriously in nuclear energy again.

How Nuclear Power Became Taboo

Fission reactions are complex molecular events: A neutron slams into a larger atom, splitting its nucleus into two smaller nuclei and releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the form of heat and radiation. After first discovering the phenomenon in 1934, physicist Enrico Fermi, having fled fascist Italy with his Jewish wife, carried out the first controlled fission reaction at a University of Chicago laboratory in 1942. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. government ― newly embroiled in World War II ― recruited Fermi to join the Manhattan Project.