Why Young People Are Now Nuclear Power's Most Potent Supporters
As the youngest generations worry about the effects of climate change on their lives, some are turning to nuclear power as a "cleaner" source of energy — marking a significant shift from the previous generation of anti-nuclear environmentalists.
BERLIN — The names Chernobyl and Fukushima still have the power to stir up fear and unease in many people. But although nuclear power stations look set to be consigned to the history books in Germany, the current energy crisis has reignited the debate around them. Even some Green Party politicians are now calling for nuclear power plants to remain operational, at least temporarily.
The younger generation is interested in nuclear power, especially in its potential to be used as a bridging technology.
Although there has not been much research into this change in attitudes, the representative study “Young Europe 2022”, which surveyed people from seven European countries, found that 42% of 16- to 26-year-olds in Germany were in favor of using nuclear power plants as a bridging technology to help us reach climate goals.
Among young people across all seven participating EU countries, the proportion was even higher – 44%. Support for coal power stations was much lower — only around 37%, both in Germany and internationally.
No longer taboo
One person who has been campaigning about the advantages of nuclear power for many years is Florian Krist.
“Since the start of the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis, I have seen greater interest in civilian use of nuclear power across Germany,” says Krist. The 29-year-old researches reactor safety at the Ruhr University Bochum and is a spokesperson for the younger generation of the German Nuclear Society, a group that advocates for the use of nuclear power.
More and more people are coming out in favor of nuclear power, says Krist.
“It is no longer a taboo subject, as it was in the past.”
Maximilian Jungmann, a political scientist with the Climate Action Science Project at the University of Heidelberg, agrees. “We are seeing a trend among the younger generation. Young people are becoming more open to keeping nuclear power plants operational, especially in the context of tackling the energy crisis, the move to phase out fossil fuels and the expansion of renewable energy sources.”
Even at earlier climate conferences, Jungmann had already noticed more young people arguing for the use of nuclear power as a way of reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
Political scientist Achim Brunnengräber from the Sustainability Research Group at the Free University of Berlin has also noticed this change in attitudes. “I have intense debates about it with my 22-year-old son,” he says.
So is the younger generation embracing a new kind of pragmatism that sets it apart from the anti-nuclear movement of previous decades?
Nuklearia members stand in front of the Grohnde nuclear power plant with signs reading "Nuclear power is coming back."
A “cleaner” technology
The T-shirts emblazoned with a smiling sun and the slogan “Nuclear power? No thanks” are a rare sight among protesters at the Fridays for Future or Last Generation demonstrations. Protests blocking the Castor containers used to transport radioactive waste are a tactic of older Greens, who no longer dominate the environmentalist movement. “Compared to the impact of climate change, concerns around nuclear energy have become a less pressing priority,” says Jungmann.
This may also be down to the fact that many nuclear power plants have already been decommissioned. The last plants in Germany are due to be shut down at the end of this year. But even when you look at other countries, such as France or Poland, where nuclear power is still widely used, you can see that the lower carbon footprint makes nuclear power an attractive alternative to harmful fossil fuels when it comes to climate change.
Of course, nuclear power still produces greenhouse gases: through uranium mining, building power plants and disposing of nuclear waste. However, in its climate report published this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change classified nuclear power as a “low-carbon energy source”. The European Union has also classified it as a sustainable energy source.
Compared to climate change, concerns around nuclear energy have become a less pressing priority.
That is music to the ears of the nuclear lobby. Pro-nuclear events encourage participants to emphasize the environmentally-friendly qualities of this “clean technology”. They enjoy the support of prominent figures such as Bill Gates, who is investing in research into so-called small modular reactors, says Brunnengräber. “Young people are fascinated by these. Perhaps their interest is partly driven by the desire to save the climate and do everything that is technologically possible.”
However, Brunnengräber doesn’t think there has been a true sea change in public opinion: “I doubt that we will see a fundamental change in attitudes,” he says, because no sufficiently influential NGOs or independent organisations have come out in favor of nuclear power.
The waste question
One of the few organisations active in this area is Nuklearia, whose members campaign for “modern and safe nuclear energy”. According to their own figures, Nuklearia counts 477 members, of which 50 are under the age of 30.
One of them is Stefan Marxmeier, who says that nuclear activism is a “big part of his life”. The 23-year-old studies Technical Building Equipment at Trier University of Applied Sciences, specializing in heating and air conditioning units. Time and time again, he comes up against problems caused by the faltering energy revolution, such as high building costs or lack of materials.
Marxmeier is convinced that nuclear power is the only practical solution that would allow Germany’s energy supply to be completely independent of other countries. He cannot understand the focus on “volatile renewable energy sources”, or why “we shut down nuclear power plants before coal power stations, which are far more damaging to the environment”.
When it comes to the potential dangers of nuclear reactors, there has been a shift in how the risks are perceived. “With nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, the effects were very clear and visible,” says political scientist Jungmann. Over time these risks have come to seem less immediate to the younger generation, while climate change and its many effects have become more visible in almost every area of life.
For those on both sides of the argument, the question of how to dispose of radioactive waste remains pressing. The younger generation places a lot of emphasis on sustainability, so the fact that (according to estimates from the Federal Office for Radiation Protection) nuclear waste needs to be safely stored for up to a million years is a serious consideration. So far no solution has been found.
Even nuclear power advocate Florian Krist admits this is an obstacle to relying on nuclear power in the long term: “There are still many unresolved questions about the problem of radioactive waste. But I am convinced that technological advances in the next few decades will allow us to significantly reduce nuclear waste or even convert it to a state in which it only emits high levels of radiation over a manageable period of time.”
The major difference between Krist and the opponents of nuclear power is that he believes it is worth investing in research in this area.
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