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Public opinion of nuclear: latest developments in Belgium & across the EU

Jun 28, 2024 | A view from..., Blog

In June 2024, the Belgian Nuclear Forum published the results of an opinion poll which revealed that the Belgian population, across all political party lines, has a very favourable view of nuclear. We sat with Belgian Nuclear Forum Managing Director Serge Dauby and nucleareurope Director General Yves Desbazeille to discuss the evolution of public opinion towards nuclear in Belgium and Europe, and whether this can lead to improvements in policy.


Serge, the first takeaway from this opinion poll is that it shows overwhelming support for nuclear in Belgium, why do you think that is?

Serge Dauby: Over the past few years, climate change  has been taken more seriously, and people are increasingly worried about it. With the dramatic rise in gas prices which followed the energy crisis of 2021-2022 and the geopolitical situation in Ukraine, people became even more aware of the fact that we shouldn’t bet on fossil fuels anymore. But it is also clear that renewable energy alone is not enough to cover the demand. So nuclear – a reliable, 24/7, low-carbon energy source – is logically the missing piece of the puzzle. In Belgium, nuclear energy has been the most important source of low carbon electricity of the last 50 years, and we are proud to be recognised as a global hub of nuclear expertise. Today, nuclear still accounts for around 40% of the Belgian electricity mix.

But allow me to add that it is not “only” the population and industrials who are calling for the return to grace of nuclear in Belgium. Political parties are now freer to express themselves about our country’s nuclear needs and the media have also understood that nuclear power is an integral part of the climate solution we need.


Yves, across Europe, are other countries showing similar trends as in those we are seeing in Belgium?

Yves Desbazeille: Yes, there is a clear evolution of public opinion on nuclear across many European Member States. For example, a recent opinion poll in Sweden showed similar results to Belgium, with almost 60% of respondents supporting nuclear new build and the continued operation of existing reactors.

These shifts in opinion also lead, to some extent, to evolutions in the position of some European countries, with an increasing number of them – represented by the Nuclear Alliance – openly supportive of nuclear and planning the construction of new reactors.


Serge, what is quite striking is that support for nuclear crosses party lines – with even sometimes relatively large portions of green parties electors supporting nuclear – are we seeing historically anti-nuclear Belgian political parties also shifting positions towards nuclear, to align with the views of their electors? If not, why not?

SD: Until today, unfortunately not. The message from the electors goes in the same direction as what we hear from the younger members of the green parties: they are more pragmatic and they see the big advantage of nuclear energy in the fight against climate change, as nuclear energy produces massive amounts of energy without emitting CO2. But the official position of the green parties has not changed: they remain very clearly anti-nuclear and retain their ideological dogmas. Let’s hope that the disappointing result for them during this election gives them an opportunity for introspection. It would help their credibility on climate & energy topics if they drop their anti-nuclear message, like the Greens in Finland did.


And do you believe there is a chance the Belgian government will modify or abolish the 2003 law forbidding nuclear new build in Belgium?

SD: We had the chance to talk with most of the political parties before the elections. And most of them were very aware of the fact that this law on the nuclear exit is outdated – it was voted in 2003, and much has changed since then. We have high hopes that the next government will modify or abolish this obsolete law. This would also make sense, given that they appear serious about investing in new nuclear, such as SMRs, in addition to prolonging the lifetime of existing nuclear power plants.


Support for SMRs is particularly important, more so than for building new large power plants, or extending the lifetime of existing ones. Serge, do you think that nuclear innovations such as SMRs contribute to the positive evolution of public opinion towards nuclear?

SD: Support for SMRs is indeed remarkable: 87% of the Belgian population wants our country to invest in these small modular reactors. 80% does not want to wait for the more advanced designs (Advanced Modular Reactors or 4th generation SMRs ) – in their opinion, we should already start building water-cooled SMRs . The industry is also explicitly open to this solution, as it is easier to implement a small reactor of 300MW than a large one of 1200MW in an industrial zone. Industry needs this extra capacity not only to electrify their production, but also to have access to heat and hydrogen, in order to decarbonise their industrial processes.

Moreover, SMRs should be quicker and less expensive to build than for example a new EPR-sized reactor. Time and budget are two crucial elements for the future success of nuclear energy. But it is essential to understand that we must not exclude anything to ensure our security of supply using decarbonised electricity. EPRs will also likely be part of the solution in the (near) future.


How can we then ensure that nuclear technologies other than SMRs are also supported?

SD: The fact that the population is less supportive towards the construction of new large power plants is in part linked to the EPR reactors in France and Finland – the delays in construction of these projects have been instrumentalised by anti-nuclear voices. It is now up to the nuclear industry to prove them wrong. With a project completed on time and on budget, perceptions will change for the better and support will grow.


Yves, we have seen the Commission getting involved in the SMR Industrial Alliance – could we also see in the future more involvement from the Commission in nuclear new build beyond SMRs?

YD: The European Industrial Alliance on SMRs was formally launched on 28 and 29 May, at its first General Assembly, in the presence of three European Commissioners. This is undeniably a major step forward, and a sign that the Commission is starting to recognise that nuclear energy is to play a key role in achieving the EU’s decarbonisation targets. This should be seen as a starting point for continued cooperation on topics such as skills or the nuclear supply chain.

Following the recent European Parliament elections, we will be seeing a new Commission take office, with renewed priorities. Policy areas such as industrial competitiveness are expected to be high up on the political agenda. This will certainly affect the Commission’s attitude towards nuclear, and we hope to see a favourable policy framework for nuclear in the future.


69% of Belgians believe that an electricity mix with nuclear and renewables is the ideal solution for 2035. Serge, what type of nuclear developments would we need to see for fossil fuels to completely disappear from the Belgian electricity mix?

SD: The first step in Belgium should be the abolition of the nuclear exit law. Beyond that, we should start working as soon as possible on the construction of water cooled SMRs. We need additional carbon-free, reliable capacity to keep big industrial players in Belgium – and Europe. Tractebel has already stated that 2035 is a realistic delivery date for the first commercial SMR in Belgium. Furthermore, a feasibility study regarding the construction of new large nuclear reactors must urgently be launched with the various Belgian stakeholders at different levels (design, licensing, supply chain, etc.). The permitting and licencing process will always take a lot of time, meaning that we cannot wait any longer: This process needs to start during this legislature.

We must work together with the new government and the Belgian and European nuclear players to define a long-term vision to ensure Belgium has a secure supply of decarbonised electricity by 2035.

Our neighbouring countries – and Europe more generally – are facing the same challenges, and we can no longer depend on other countries to provide us with decarbonised electricity.


Yves, what about in Europe?

YD: We believe that to in order to reach the objective of a net-zero Europe by 2050, all low-carbon technologies will be needed.

For nuclear, we envision a scenario of 150GW of installed nuclear capacity by 2050 – this can be achieved by investing in nuclear new build, including new power plants, SMRs and AMRs, and by extending the lifetime of existing power plants where possible.


In Belgium, but also in Europe, we see public opinion evolving towards more support to nuclear, Serge, are we seeing this translated into action (e.g. policy changes) at the national level?

SD: It is too early to confirm this, but we have high hopes that actions will follow. We urgently call for the abolition of the nuclear exit law, the start of the negotiations to extend the lifetime of more nuclear reactors for a longer period, and the construction of new nuclear reactors (SMRs and/or large ones). At the moment, these measures are on the wish list of most of the Belgian political parties, we will have to see how this will be translated into the government agreement. In any case, we are always happy to help policy makers during negotiations, by providing, together with our members, trustworthy and reliable input.


Yves, what about at European level? 

YD: Over the past five years, we have seen a lot of change in the institutions’ policies towards nuclear. One of the milestones of the former mandate was the inclusion of nuclear in the sustainable finance taxonomy, which we welcome.

However, the policy framework still needs to evolve to allow the nuclear sector to develop its activities and support the EU in reaching its decarbonisation goals. The nuclear industry, in its manifesto, calls for the next Commission to implement goal oriented policies, to support access to finance for the nuclear sector and to adopt a technology neutral approach in policy making.

Over the years to come, the EU is set to face major challenges in its path to decarbonisation, specifically in terms of security of supply and affordability. I don’t see any way the EU can meet those challenges without fully considering nuclear as part of the equation.

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