A forest of wind turbines rises out of the fields on both sides of the highway running east out of Vienna. But at the border with Slovakia, which stretches between Austria and Ukraine, they stop. Slovakia gets only 0.4 percent of its energy from wind and solar. Instead it is betting its energy transition on nuclear power.
At the center of Slovakia’s nuclear strategy is the Mochovce power plant, an orange and red building flanked by eight giant cooling chimneys. There used to be a village here, before the Soviet Union relocated it to make space for the power plant in the 1980s. All that remains is a small boarded-up church. Cars slide in and out of the guarded security gate, and the cooling chimneys belch a stream of water vapor out into the sky. Inside, workers are preparing a new reactor—where nuclear fission will take place—for launch in early 2023. The 471-megawatt unit, which spent years mired in controversy, is expected to cover 13 percent of the country’s electricity needs, making Slovakia self-sufficient, according to Branislav Strýček, CEO of Slovenské Elektrárne, the company that runs the plant. Slovakia is expected to reach that milestone as its European neighbors scramble for energy supplies after cutting ties with Russia, a major exporter of natural gas.
Without Russian gas, Europe has been racing to avoid blackouts. Every day, Paris is turning off the Eiffel Tower’s lights an hour early, Cologne has dimmed its street lights, and Switzerland is considering a ban on electric cars. Nuclear power advocates, like Strýček, are using this moment to argue that Europe needs nuclear technology to keep the lights on without jeopardizing net-zero targets. “It provides an immense amount of secure, predictable, stable baseload, which renewables are not able to provide,” he said at the World Utilities Congress in June.
The energy crisis is not a deal breaker in Europe’s nuclear debate, but in some countries it is boosting the pro-nuclear side of the argument, says Lukas Bunsen, head of research at consultancy Aurora Energy Research. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany has announced it will keep the country’s three remaining nuclear power plants open until April 2023. Belgium proposed to keep its nuclear plants running for another 10 years. In October, Poland signed a deal with the US company Westinghouse to build its first nuclear power plant.
But Europe remains deeply divided on the use of nuclear power. Of the European Union’s 27 member states, 13 generate nuclear power, while 14 do not. “It’s still a very national debate,” says Bunsen. That means public attitudes can drastically change from one side of a border to the other. Surveys show that 60 percent of Slovakians believe nuclear power is safe, while 70 percent of their neighbors in Austria are against it being used at all—the country has no active nuclear plants.
For the two neighbors, Mochovce has become a focal point in the debate over how Europe should transition away from fossil fuels. To supporters in Slovakia, Mochovce’s expansion—the launch of Unit Three is expected to be followed two years later by Unit Four—demonstrates how even a small country can become an energy heavyweight. Unit Three will make Slovakia the second-largest producer of nuclear power in the EU, after France. But neighboring Austrians cannot ignore what they consider to be the drawbacks: the mammoth costs associated with building or improving aging facilities, the problems associated with disposing of nuclear waste, and the sector’s reliance on Moscow for uranium, the fuel which powers the reactor. Last year, the EU imported one fifth of its uranium from Russia.
For years, politicians and activists in Austria have also alleged that Mochovce is not safe, with local newspapers using maps to illustrate how close Mochovce is to Vienna: just 150 kilometers. “It’s a Soviet design from the 1980s, without a proper containment,” claims Reinhard Uhrig, an antinuclear campaigner with Austrian environmental group GLOBAL 2000. The containment is one of a series of safety systems that prevents radioactive material being released into the environment in case of an accident. “Apart from these inherent design problems, there have been major issues with the quality control of the works,” he says, describing nuclear power as a dangerous distraction from real solutions to the climate crisis.