Europe is divided on nuclear power: Which countries are for and against it?

Steam billows from a nuclear power plant next to an old windmill in Doel, Belgium.
Steam billows from a nuclear power plant next to an old windmill in Doel, Belgium. Copyright AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
Copyright AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
By Rosie Frost
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As 30 global leaders and delegations meet in Brussels to promote nuclear energy, the role of nuclear power continues to divide Europe.


Though Europe remains divided in its approach to nuclear power, world leaders were united in Brussels in March for the first-ever Nuclear Energy Summit. 

Delegations from more than 30 countries gathered for the event next to the iconic Atomium building – a monument itself designed to uphold the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

High-level attendees have a similarly pro-nuclear stance, gathering to highlight the role of nuclear energy in reducing the use of fossil fuels, enhancing energy security and boosting economic development. The summit follows an official call at COP28 in Dubai last December to accelerate nuclear energy alongside other low-carbon energy sources.

Without the support of nuclear power, we have no chance to reach our climate targets on time.
Fatih Birol
Executive Director of the International Energy Agency

But with protests from environmental campaigners such as Greenpeace and key anti-nuclear European powers such as Germany notably absent from the event, the nuclear energy debate continues to divide the continent. 

And, as a third of the EU’s currently operating nuclear reactors approach the end of their lifecycle in 2025, the future of the energy source isn't so easily settled.

So, why is nuclear power such a divisive topic in Europe?

How much of Europe’s energy comes from nuclear power?

Around a quarter of the EU’s energy is nuclear and more than half of that is produced in France. In total, there are more than 150 reactors operating across the 27 member states. 

Across the bloc, there are a wide variety of different views on the use of nuclear power, however. Safety concerns following previous high-profile disasters have made nuclear a controversial topic. Each member state makes its own choice as to whether to include it in its energy mix.

This puts many governments in a position where they need to decide on the future of nuclear in their country.

Which European countries attended the Nuclear Energy Summit?

The summit was co-chaired by the Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo (alongside the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi) and attended by officials such as European Council president Charles Michel and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden were among the signatories of a declaration which called on regulators to “fully unlock” the potential of nuclear and to “enable financing conditions” to support the lifetime extension of existing nuclear reactors.

EU leaders said that the energy crisis and the bloc's reliance on overseas fuel sources were major reasons to pursue nuclear power, alongside its “potential to decarbonise energy systems” and “provide affordable electricity”.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the “renewed interest” in nuclear came at a “pivotal moment” to reach the EU’s climate goals, notably to “safeguard energy security and competitiveness”.

Where does summit host Belgium stand?

With Belgium's prime minister Alexander De Croo co-host of the inaugural nuclear summit, does that mean Belgium is pro-nuclear? The country's history of nuclear energy is more complicated than that.

Nuclear phase-out plans were introduced as far back as 1999, but dates and deadlines have been in constant flux since then. In 2009, the Belgian government decided to extend the lifetimes of its three oldest nuclear plants to 2025. But the energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine saw this date postponed by a further 10 years.

The prime minister noted in his opening remarks that the country had changed policy from closing plants to extending their lifetimes, saying that to meet net-zero goals, nuclear had to be part of the energy mix.

De Croo added that the EU should use nuclear energy to "complement" its ongoing investment in renewables. 

Which countries are against nuclear power?

After the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 and then the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, public opinion about nuclear energy changed dramatically.


In Germany, fears about safety boosted the environmental movement and the country’s Green Party.

In 2002, Germany’s centre-left government passed a law to stop any new nuclear power plants from being built. All existing reactors were also to close in the future.

This was part of a shift to energy sources like wind and solar that the country considered truly renewable. While nuclear is considered ‘low-carbon’ as nuclear reactors don’t produce direct CO2 emissions, it relies on uranium as fuel - the mining and refining of which is energy intensive.

Then in 2010, Angela Merkel announced that the life of Germany’s nuclear plants would be extended to increase supplies of low-carbon energy.

Protestors demonstrate outside the Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels, 21 March 2024.
Protestors demonstrate outside the Nuclear Energy Summit in Brussels, 21 March 2024.AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Just a year later, the incident at Fukushima power station in Japan raised concerns once again. There were months of massive anti-nuclear protests across the country causing Merkel’s government to announce that all nuclear power plants would be closed by 2022.


The threat of energy insecurity due to the war in Ukraine extended their life beyond this deadline, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz keeping three remaining plants open until April 2023 to prevent an energy shortage

When these three reactors officially closed on 15 April 2023, Germany joined Italy and Lithuania as one of three countries to have completely phased out nuclear power for electricity generation after having operational reactors.

In Italy, nuclear is also a controversial topic. All of the country's plants were closed by 1990 following a referendum on nuclear power. Since then, the government has tried to propose a revival - most notably a plan in 2008 to build as many as 10 new reactors.

Once again, the 2011 nuclear accident in Japan swayed public opinion with 94 per cent of the electorate voting for a construction ban in a referendum shortly after. 

Employees look up at the construction site of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, England.
Employees look up at the construction site of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, England.AP Photo/Kin Cheung

But with Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani in attendance at the 2024 Brussels summit, where Italy was one of 32 countries to sign a declaration stating, "[we] reaffirm our strong commitment to nuclear energy", Italy's nuclear future remains up for debate once again. 


There are also barriers to developing nuclear in several other EU member states including Portugal, Denmark and Austria - another strong opposing voice, which in 2022 filed a legal challenge against the EU, claiming its categorisation of nuclear energy as green investment was 'greenwashing'.

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