Posted by Suzanna Hinson

By Stephen Tindale and Suzanna Hinson

“EU member states with pro-nuclear policies risk undermining Europe’s 2020 Strategy on climate and energy goals, an academic study has found.”

Maxine Perella: “Pro-nuclear EU countries ‘slower to tackle GHGs or boost renewables’ – study.” ENDS Europe, 24 August 2016

The study referred to is “Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence?” by Andrew Lawrence, Benjamin Sovacool and Andrew Stirling, from the University of Sussex and the Vienna School of International Relations.[1]

The authors consider data from all European countries. They divide them into three main categories: always anti-nuclear (13 countries); now anti-nuclear (7); pro-nuclear (8). The headline conclusions are that:

– The always-anti countries have reduced their emissions by an average of 6% since 2005, and had increased renewable energy sources to 26%.

– The now-anti countries reduced emissions on average by 11% while expanding renewables to 19%.

– In pro-nuclear countries, greenhouse gas emissions have increased since 2005 by an average of 3%, and only 16% of energy is from renewables.

– On the basis of these figures, the authors conclude:”[The] intensities of national commitment to nuclear power tend to be inversely related to degrees of success in achieving EU climate policy goals.”

The study was published in the journal Climate Policy, so will have been peer reviewed. It deserves to be taken seriously – and has already been widely discussed. However, the authors’ conclusions are, in our view, based on two significant mistakes:

– The categories of pro- and anti-nuclear are too broad and do not compare like with like;

– Reduction of greenhouse gases and promotion of renewable energy are presented together as a single objective. They are not.

The authors group countries together into always anti-nuclear, now anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear. To be in the ‘now anti-‘ category, a country’s government must have a policy to decommission existing nuclear power stations and not allow replacements. Germany clearly belongs in this category. Does Sweden, which the authors also place there? In 1980 Swedes voted in a referendum to phase out nuclear power, though no timetable was set. Since then Swedish policy on nuclear has been, to use the diplomatic word used by the World Nuclear Association, “ambivalent”.[2] In 2010, at the behest of a centre-right government, the Swedish parliament lifted the ban on new nuclear construction. In 2014 the Green Party entered a centre-left coalition, so new nuclear was off the political agenda for a while. But on 10 June this year (so shortly after the publication of the Climate Policy article) the government lifted its moratorium on nuclear new build, and also reduced the tax on nuclear. Sweden is not, therefore, an anti-nuclear country.

The countries which the authors do place in their pro-nuclear category are Finland, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the UK: countries with very different economic and political circumstances. We do not believe that it makes analytical sense to compare western European countries – established democracies with strong economies – with ex-communist central and eastern European ones. And the existing energy mix is also a determining factor in a country’s attitude to climate action. The reason the Polish government opposes strong greenhouse gas reduction targets is not because it wants to build a nuclear power station; it is because Polish society and economy are currently so dependent on coal.

If one narrows the category to western European countries, how do pro-and anti-nuclear countries compare? In terms of greenhouse gas reductions since 2005, the figures given in the Climate Policy article are:

Country Authors’ category Greenhouse gas reduction since 2005
Denmark Always anti -20%
Ireland Always anti -20%
Austria Always anti -16%
Finland Pro -16%
Netherlands Now anti -16%
Belgium Now anti -15%
France Pro -14%
Germany Now anti -14%
UK Pro -14%
Italy Always anti -13%
Spain Now anti -10%
Sweden Now anti -10%


Denmark and Ireland, the countries that have reduced emissions most since 2005, have always been anti-nuclear. But two examples do not constitute a proven link. Beyond these two, the figures do not establish correlation, let alone causation. In joint second on -16% are one country from each of the three categories. Anti-nuclear Germany and pro-nuclear Britain and France have each reduced emissions by 14% since 2005.

Performance on renewable energy

The authors then consider how well countries are performing on renewable energy. They mention the drawbacks of some renewable energy technologies, including large hydro and bioenergy, but nevertheless present single figures, covering all renewables, for each country. Bioenergy and nuclear can be used anywhere, but other renewables, especially hydro, are geographically dependent.

The figures for western European countries are given below. Again, there is no correlation between attitude to nuclear and performance on renewables.

Country Category Percentage of energy from renewables (2013)
Sweden Now anti (according to authors) 52%
Finland Pro 37%
Austria Always anti 33%
Denmark Always anti 27%
France Pro 14%
Germany Now anti 12.5%
UK Pro 5%
Netherlands Now anti 4.5%


Sweden get about 40% of its electricity from hydro; Finland 18%. Finland got 16% of electricity from bioenergy in 2013, Sweden 6%. Both countries also use bioenergy extensively for heating.[3] They have strong criteria for minimising the biodiversity impact of biomass, but not for assessing the carbon footprint. EU rules on the carbon footprint of bioenergy apply only to biofuels, not to biomass. Bioenergy is necessary, particularly for heating and for transport. But not all bioenergy expansion is desirable. Being renewable is not the same as being good for the climate. Similarly, large-scale hydro, has some severe consequences to habitats, erosion and hydrology meaning though it is good for the climate, it is not necessarily good for the environment.

Are renewables better than nuclear?

Does it matter whether greenhouse gas reductions are achieved through expansion of renewables, or through other measures? It does not matter to the global climate. In our view, the scale of the climate crisis is such that we need rapidly to move beyond arguments about which low-carbon technology to support and accepted that all are required. (Our next report will be on this issue.) But the way in which emissions are reduced appears to matter to the Climate Policy authors. Professor Andy Stirling, said about his report: “By suppressing better ways to meet climate goals, evidence suggests entrenched commitments to nuclear power may actually be counterproductive.”[4]

Academics should always define their terms. So we have a question for Professor Sterling: better in what sense?







  1. Mark Pawelek says:

    Thanks for this.

    A. Comments on your comment.
    1) “so will have been peer reviewed” : are you sure about that? There are journals which call themself “peer-reviewed” but do not insist every article is such. I can’t, personally, believe there are enough peers with the same level of bias as the article authors to let all their mistakes slip through the net.
    2) In 2013, Sweden was the RE leader in Europe, with the highest RE penetration in Transport, and Heating/cooling. They took low hanging fruit earlier so may find it harder to make RE gains at the same speed in future. [ this may explain why they are bottom of your table “Greenhouse gas reduction since 2005” ]

    B. Comments on the study:
    This is such a bad study. The
    1) value laden language,
    2) arbitrary categorization of countries into 4 groups (how is Slovenia ‘nuclear phase out’?),
    3) evidence free association that more RE leads to climate goal success when Germany shows more renewables do not necessarily reduce CO2 emissions, [ Germany had no per capita CO2 emission fall from 2009 to 2015!, despite building massive amounts of wind and solar ]
    4) Ignoring other factors influencing energy technology choice such as: geography, history, economics, convenience, energy security, …
    5) e.g. Hills + plentiful water induced Norway and Sweden to build hydro. Not disdain for nuclear power. In fact, Sweden built lots of hydro and nuclear electricity together!
    6) e.g. France built so much nuclear power because they wanted energy security after being so badly burnt in 1970s oil crisis. 45 years ago France had a lot of diesel fired electricity.
    7) Eurostat (EU stats) showed France using proportionally more RE than Germany in 2013! France kept its CO2-free nuclear power but added RE elsewhere (other than electricity). [ see 1st table here, copied from 2013 Eurostat data: ]
    8) My other criticisms of this Energy Policy article:

  2. Chaeles Barton says:

    The Referebce to a paper co-authored by Dr. Benjimin Sovacool driw my attention to a number of controversies I had with Ben some time ago.

    My Discussion pointed to a description of a data base that did not seem to support any valid conclusions on energy safety. Dr. Sovacool responded was that the paper was infact different than he had described online, and thatr I could find this out be reeding his pay to read paper. I felt that simply writing a second paper that would cost nothing to read and could be posted online, would have solved the problem. At anyrate if the original paper was some much more accurate than the online version, why did Sovacool bother with posting the inaccurate online version. My warning to Dr. Sovacool’s readers, beware. If CO2 emissions from France generated electricity don’t look better than CO2 emissions from German generated electry, you know thatsomething crooked is going on.

  3. Jim Hopf says:

    Why nitpick analytical details when the truth is obvious. Nuclear is a non-emitting source, period, just like renewables are. Thus, how can being pro-nuclear be anti-climate?

    I would also suggest a more obvious issue with this “study”. For the most part, the “pro-nuclear” countries already had very low power-sector CO2 emissions, so they had nowhere to go. The anti-nuclear countries used more fossil fuels in the baseline year of 2005 (for the obvious reason that they didn’t use nuclear). Thus, the anti-nuclear countries were more able to reduce emissions since 2005, as they could replace *some* of their fossil generation with renewables.

    Who (cherry) picked the baseline year of 2005 anyway? To be fair, they should go back to before the pro-nuclear countries built their nuclear plants, and see who’s had the largest reductions since then. Or an alternative, simple suggestion; instead of only presenting the percentage reductions in CO2 emissions (between pro and anti-nuclear countries) how about presenting the absolute levels of CO2 emissions (overall, per unit GDP, per person, etc…). That will show a much different story.
    This is all so silly.

    On the other extreme, we have Poland, which is classified as a “pro-nuclear” country even though they never had, and still don’t have, any nuclear power plants. Pretty hard for nuclear plants that aren’t built to help reduce global warming. So, they list a country that uses coal for all its power, hasn’t reduced its emissions much, but has said some nice things about nuclear here and there, as “pro-nuclear”, as a way to skew their statistics.

    The other factor is that much of the CO2 emissions are from outside the power sector, and nuclear has nothing to do with that. It may be that emissions reduction outside the power sector are harder, and for the pro-nuclear countries, that was the only way they had to (further) reduce emissions, since the power-sector was already largely non-fossil.

    The real truth is closer to the opposite. Commitment to renewable energy (only) has hampered progress on CO2 emissions reduction, as the Germany and California examples show. Renewables mandate policies have largely caused nuclear, as opposed to fossil fuels, to be replaced by renewables (as “flexible” fossil plants are better able to back up intermittent renewables). Such policies also apply no incentive for any other means of emissions reduction, which leads to things like Germany choosing to use coal instead of gas for the remaining (majority of) power. One “environmentalists” told climate leader James Hansen that the primary objective of renewables mandates was to get rid of nuclear, not fossil, and that’s what we’re seeing.

    What we really need to do is not have “commitments” to either nuclear or renewables. We need to put a price on CO2 emissions and let the market decide how to respond. We need either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system WITHOUT any additional policies like subsidies or mandates for specific sources. It is obvious to anyone (economists, anyway) that that would be the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions.

  4. Francis Noel-Hudson says:

    It is distressing to think that David Cameron has told the fossil fuel people to keep extracting as much as they can; and we are not urgently pushing nuclear power from Thorium as India & China + a few others are. All the advantages and near absence of disadvantages, surely change everything. Can’t help thinking if we built a small, ‘simple’ (if that’s possible) Liquid FluorideThorium Reactor and got it working, it would draw attention and generate interest and discussion enough to make a difference to the investment it would attract. Even an inefficient one (compared with what we now think possible) would produce power in super abundance and help to attract funds t accelerate the progress. With news of ‘chimneys’ of methane now rising from where it has been trapped in permafrost for millennia, it is a reminder that we really can’t afford to hang around for a perfect, all singing & dancing reactor; we NEED a basic and safe one now. If we get on with it, we could be the first to mass produce them and sell them and generate profit as well as electricity and all the other things they can do.

  5. Benjamin Sovacool says:

    Thanks for your interesting comments and for engaging in the discussion – we’ve responded in in a post on the Sussex Energy Group webpage. It’s too long to post here but please do read our response here:

    • Suzanna Hinson says:

      Thank you for your interesting response. We appreciated reading your points but seems will have to agree to disagree on most of them! I would just like to comment on some of your responses. The mentions of “devastating periodic nuclear accidents” is very misleading as nuclear is in fact the safest technology in terms of deaths per KWh (see David Mackay) and no one died at Fukushima or Three Mile Island due to radiation. Safety has moved on from the time of Chenobyl and future reactors could be inherently safe. Additionally the mention of long-lived nuclear waste and proliferation is one of the key reasons we support advanced nuclear reactors which are one of the best ways of using up waste so it doesn’t have to be stored or disposed of. Finally, I would like to clarify that we do not support nuclear at any cost, and have both publically spoken against Hinkley because of its economic and technical issues. We support nuclear because we believe without it the decarbonisation challenge is much greater. Although renewables are rapidly developing and very important technologies (that we actively support) they cannot provide base load power or industrial heat. A diverse mix of technologies need to be pursued in future, and we believe ignoring one of the main, clean technologies of today would be a backward, not a forward step. Nuclear needs to be in the mix too.

  6. Albert Rogers says:

    The article “Pro-nuclear EU countries ‘slower to tackle GHGs or boost renewables’” assumes that “Europe’s 2020 Strategy on climate and energy goals” is a sound one.
    It plain bloody isn’t!
    Germany’s policy of destroying nuclear power and its expensive expansion of wind and solar is such an abject failure at meeting the power requirements that they have launched a major expansion of the filthiest technology of all, coal burning, and I believe it’s lignite coal. Perhaps indeed Energywende was intended to fail, sponsored by the coal industry.

  7. Mark Pawelek says:

    I rewrote my criticism of this paper in a more systematic way, enumerating the issues, and added some more points found along they way:

    I think the most serious issue was dubious data they used. Lawrence, Sovacool & Stirling (LSS) present GHG “Emissions reductions” data in Table 2 of their paper. I tried to trace this data to the source provided by LSS but the data was not present where they said they got it. Then I tried to reproduce GHG emissions reductions. I calculated 4 different reductions (using different time spans) from CAIT data but all 4 results showed group III (nuclear power supporting) countries did better, not worse at reducing GHG emissions.

    I would really like to know where LSS got the GHG “Emissions reductions” data they presented in Table 2.

  8. Mark Pawelek says:

    Retraction Watch advice on how not to raise an issue with a bad academic paper, but what you should really do instead:

  9. Benjamin Sovacool says:


    Again, we disagree, but let me give you the reasons why.

    Fukushima has been predicted to have serious radiation related deaths, as the attached study shows, these reach into the hundreds and possibly thousands:!divAbstract.

    And, in terms of the “inherently safe” nature of reactors, this is also false, with three recent studies all warning of the chance of serious nuclear accidents in the near to mid-future:

    MIT Tech Review covered one of them here:

    MV Ramana (physicist at Princeton) and Chris Cooper (economist trained at Yale) have also conducted independent assessments of SMR technology (along with other new reactor designs), and found that they will likely be less reliable, and more expensive, than the current fleet:

    Renewables can provide baseload power and have been doing so for decades. Hydroelectricity is a case in point, and it already generates far more electricity than all commercial nuclear reactors. Geothermal and bioenergy can also provide energy, electricity, and heat in a variety of forms, along with CSP. Only solar PV and wind are limited to “electricity only,” and then, if you integrate them well with other systems or storage, they are just as reliable as conventional units.

    Lastly, I do not consider myself “anti-nuclear.” A chapter here makes the case in the “synthesis” that nuclear power plants do have a role to play in markets where full social costs are priced and ratepayers and stakeholders are fine with them operating. I support that—the trouble is such transparency and accounting for externalities rarely occurs.

    If you need access to any of these studies I mention, email me and I am happy to share.


  10. Benjamin Sovacool says:


    We’ve also seen your critique and plan to write a response soon.


  11. Jeremy Owston says:

    the metric used is a bit vague and ambiguous in this report. A country could be pro Nuclear and not actually build or spend money on it (for the past 20years UK has spent little to no money on nuclear R&D or nuclear new build or had any market levers to promote nuclear until recently launching Contracts for Difference and an SMR competition) therefore saying a country is pro something doesn’t imply any material action in that direction. Also a pro renewable country may be spending billions (aka Germany) with relatively minimal reductions in CO2 emissions.

    Finally the analysis doesn’t split out emission reductions due to other measures which are separate to the deployment of a generation technology. For instance the US has reduced emissions largely for a dash for gas and a economic downturn. These factors which would greatly skew emissions are not taken into account.

    Essentially with such a vague definition and metric the report could come up with any conclusion the author would like to make.

  12. Benjamin Sovacool says:

    Dear “Mark4asp” and those reading this and the “Nukes Pretty Please” blog,

    We read with interest your critique below and wanted to engage with some of its main points. We also wanted to refer you to an already published rebuttal that touches upon, and responds to, some of the criticisms you raise below:

    In the interests of both transparency and intellectual dialogue, we respond point-by-point below to the arguments raised here. We have offered our responses below.


    Andrew Lawrence
    Andy Stirling
    Benjamin Sovacool


    • Peter Weigl says:

      Benjamin Sovacool,
      will you care to contact all the media who published the results of your faulty study and ask them to publish prominently that the study was faulty and that the correct result was the opposite of your claim?


    • Darrel Stickler says:

      Did anyone save the authors’ intermediate response? The links were taken down.

  13. Todd De Ryck says:

    Nicholas Thompson has written a critique to the Sussex paper “A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool, and Stirling”

  14. Benjamin Sovacool says:

    Dear Todd, all, after both reproducing the analysis and reading Nick Thompson’s blog, we have decided to formally retract the article. We approached the journal about this many weeks ago, but it took them time to process it. It was published today. You can see our retraction statement here, and a modified press release here We have a reply submitted to Nick at his blog so refer there for more.

  15. Peter Weigl says:

    Shame on the authors Andrew Lawrence, Andy Stirling, Benjamin Sovacool.
    Found out by the diligence of some bloggers they had finally to admit that their “study” was wrong. No word in their withdrawal statement, that the correct analysis of their data leads to the opposite of their conclusion.
    How many media outlets have published the faulty study results? Will the authors contact them and ask for prominent corrections?
    How will the media’s use of the false results influence the outcome of the Swiss decision on nuclear energy, for example?
    What about the validity of the other studies, especially of Sovacool on nuclear energy, risk, bird deaths etc.

    Here ist he link to the
    “Authorial statement of article withdrawal”

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