Science to Share

Sustainable transitions

Nuclear energy: a polluted debate?

In October 2021, the Netherlands did not join the French lobby to include nuclear energy in the taxonomy, while a majority of the House of Representatives would like to. If nuclear energy is included in the taxonomy, it would mean that nuclear energy will be seen as “green energy” and that there will be more financing for building nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy can play an important role in reducing our CO2 emissions. But why is the Netherlands not joining this? “Making a policy for something that will last 60 to 80 years is very difficult,” says Michal Onderco, assistant professor of international relations at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

A solution to the climate problem?

Investing in nuclear energy is one of the best ways to reduce our CO2 emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) already indicated this in June 2020. The national government also agreed with this at the end of 2020 after a study by the ENCO consultancy and hoped to be able to include nuclear energy in the ‘energy mix’. Because a nuclear power plant lasts 60 to 80 years, it is the cheapest way to save CO2, cheaper than wind and solar energy. Moreover, nuclear energy is also a safe energy. The nuclear power plant in Borssele dates from 1973 and has many safety barriers. Ceramic (porcelain) tubes, zirconium metal, a concrete bunker and a steel sphere protect the nuclear power plant. It is therefore not possible to release the radioactive radiation with one attack or one natural disaster. “The security concerns are rather exaggerated. The Netherlands is not located in an earthquake zone,” says Onderco.

Political issues

The fact that nuclear energy is the cheapest way to save CO2 does not immediately mean that investing in nuclear energy is a good idea. The costs of building a nuclear power plant are enormous, about 10 to 20 billion euros. Building also takes a lot of time (8 to 10 years), especially compared to building a wind farm (6 months to 1 year). Other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar energy, will become cheaper in the coming years as the market expands. This is not the case for nuclear energy, the costs have actually increased in recent years or differ greatly from country to country. But in a country like South Korea that has been constantly investing in nuclear energy, costs have been falling in recent years. The World Nuclear Association also indicated in September 2021 that nuclear energy is cost-competitive, especially compared to fossil fuels. Onderco itself remains skeptical: “Maybe nuclear energy doesn’t look as great (economically) in the future as it does now”.

Storage of waste

Onderco does speak out about the radioactive waste produced by a nuclear power plant. “Radioactive waste is a real problem. You’ve been stuck with it for thousands of years and we don’t have a general solution for it yet.” The waste produced in a nuclear power plant consists of fission products left over when uranium splits apart, actinoids that are formed when neutron “bullets” stick in uranium and material surrounding the nuclear reaction that has come into contact with radiation. One tonne (1,000 kg) of uranium in the nuclear power plant has been exhausted after 3 years. In that time, a total of 35 kg of fission products and 16 kg of actinoids have been produced. The remaining 949 kg is still uranium and can be reused. A standard nuclear power plant produces about 1,000 kg of radioactive waste per year. This must be stored for 1,000 to 10,000 years until it is no longer radioactive. In Finland they are progressive with the use of nuclear energy and the storage of the waste. 32% of their energy consumption is generated by nuclear energy and the fifth nuclear power plant is due to come into operation by the end of this year. At that time, Finland will generate 60% of their energy consumption with nuclear energy. To store all their own waste, they conducted research from 2004 to 2014 in a laboratory at a depth of 450 meters. Here they have searched for the best method of storing waste. Two layers of cast iron ensure that the pipes containing the waste cannot be damaged. A layer of copper prevents the cast iron from rusting. Finally, a layer of bentonite clay ensures that, if a leak occurs, the radioactive material cannot leak out. Bentonite clay has a special crystal structure, which means that no liquids can leak through it. The containters are then buried 6 meters deep in bedrock and thus are approximately 450 meters underground.

What is smart for the Netherlands?

Because no decision has yet been made in the Netherlands, we will often talk about nuclear energy in the coming years. “I’m not talking about whether or not to build. I indicate that politicians should discuss the costs of nuclear energy and whether the Netherlands benefits from it. It has an effect on many generations to come and is therefore really a topic to be concerned with. If you think this is an important issue, do your research, read a lot of opinions and ultimately make your own decision,” said Onderco.

Want to know more about nuclear energy? Then you might find this interesting!

A nuclear power plant is actually a large steam engine. Instead of coal, substances such as uranium and thorium are used as fuel. By firing a neutron ‘bullet’ at uranium, a uranium particle breaks apart into two parts. When falling apart, a lot of heat is released. This heat is used to heat water into steam, which can then be used to generate electricity. Because when the uranium particles fall apart, three new neutron balls are also created, they shoot through to the next particle of uranium, which causes a chain reaction.

Want to read more about other alternative energy sources? Take a look at our other articles!

  • Energy from sweat
  • Solar panels
  • Biogas
  • Biomass

Used sources

  • Gil, L. (2020, November 26). Finland’s Spent Fuel Repository a “Game Changer” for the Nuclear Industry, Director General Grossi Says.
  • french Institute of Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics (IN2P3). (n.d.). Radioactive waste: Spent fuel composition. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from
  • NS Energy. (2020). Onkalo Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from
  • World Nuclear Association. (2021, September). Economics of Nuclear Power.