Editor’s note: While both authors contributed to the following article, it is written from the perspective of Tea Törmänen.
When the Finnish Green Party, known as Vihreät, came together for its annual assembly in 2022, few people anticipated anything unusual. On the morning of May 21st, hundreds of people assembled at the local sports arena in Joensuu, a small town in eastern Finland. Casually dressed party members chattered in small groups, sipping coffee while munching on vegan cinnamon buns.
I was one of the few people in the room who understood the significance of the meeting we were about to attend.
When I woke up that day, I already knew this was going to be a historic event. Vihreät, the first green party in the world to abort its stance against nuclear power, was about to complete its pro-nuclear pivot by becoming an active supporter. Despite the controversy, they were about to adopt official statements accepting nuclear energy as a crucial part of the plan to tackle climate change.
For me, it was a moment long overdue. I had learned both politics and environmentalism at my mother’s knee. A longtime donor to the WWF and other environmental organizations, she was active in the centrist Coalition Party, which has historically been one of the most pro-nuclear parties in Finland. I had followed in her footsteps. After a stint as leader of Finland’s Liberal Party and several years chairing Suomen Ekomodernistit—the Ecomodernist Society of Finland—I formally joined the Greens in 2019.
Over 400 selected members with a right to vote had gathered in the annual assembly. For the party, this is the most important event of the year, with the possible exception of elections. It’s a weekend of lively political debate during which members vote on important changes to the party line.
It was the culmination of a story that began in 2008. That year, a coalition of Greens dissented from the party and began Greens for Science and Technology (GST). A broadly pro-technology working group within the party, GST eventually began to agitate and promote a green vision of nuclear energy in Finland. The GST began by advocating two goals: policy based on scientific evidence, and a “technology-neutral” approach to achieving climate goals. The logic was simple: the goal of reducing carbon emissions is more important than the means by which this is done. Studies by prominent groups like the IPCC and UNECE were showing that the life-cycle emissions of nuclear power plants are the lowest of all low-carbon energy sources.
At the time, in a party in which many activists had got their start in anti-nuclear protests, the proposal went off like a bomb. At first, it was met with accusations and intimidation: “You’re in the wrong party!” Some even made accusations that the group was being paid by the nuclear industry. But our working group employed a strategy of professional engagement. We made sure to be visible whenever the nuclear issue was discussed, including on social media, and maintained a diplomatic frame even on those occasions when opponents became hostile.
The strategy worked: while the call for pragmatism was met with resistance from many, support for nuclear energy began to grow among the ranks. This turn was supported by a number of senior leaders who explicitly began to favor a change in policy. The former party chair and GST co-founder Osmo Soininvaara had been on board from the start. Later, another former chair named Touko Aalto began voicing support for nuclear energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Other leading party members came out in support of nuclear power as well.
Eventually, pro-nuclear advocates won policy changes too. In 2014, the party agreed to stop pursuing the premature closure of existing nuclear power plants. And in 2016, the party’s climate and energy policy expert hinted at accepting advanced reactors.
My own formal involvement in GST—although I had worked with many of its members before—had begun immediately after joining the party. I was quickly selected for two working groups within the Green Party: the Climate and Energy working group and the Environmental Protection working group, both of which were promising avenues from which to influence party policy. When I moved from Espoo to Joensuu in 2020, I decided to start a local branch of the GST in Savonia-Karelia and became its chair. Now, in Joensuu, I was representing us in the official party assembly. It was time to complete the pro-nuclear shift among the Finnish Greens.
In the run-up to the 2022 assembly, several working groups prepared the new proposals, giving members the opportunity to suggest modifications. Pro-nuclear members in these working groups included positions that would update the party’s overall policy; the assembly would now vote on accepting or rejecting these changes.
The proposals recognized nuclear power as part of sustainable energy production. The Greens had supported scrapping controversial plans for the Russian-backed Fennovoima nuclear power plant when the Ukraine war broke out. But rather than abandoning the goal of a new facility entirely, one proposal committed the Greens to support a replacement facility with an equal amount of “stable, low-carbon baseload energy production.” Another proposal supported approving the extension licenses of the current nuclear power plants and reforming current legislation so that building small modular reactors would become possible.
At the assembly, voting began.
For a party that takes democracy very seriously, voting can take a long time. A few passionately anti-nuclear party members took the opportunity to speak out, hoping to convince the audience to delete each and every pro-nuclear proposal. Their arguments: nuclear is expensive, prone to accidents and terrorism, and its radioactive waste cannot be handled safely. We had heard and disputed these arguments a thousand times.
This time, however, the urgency of the moment seemed to overwhelm the opposition. One anti-nuclear member argued that it is too late to stop the climate crisis anyway, and since nuclear power cannot function during a crisis, we must not use it. This defeatist attitude shocked us; in the audience, several attendees began to laugh in disbelief. This was an incredible statement for a party that takes combating climate change as one of its major goals. The fight was over.
When at last it was time to vote by raising colored paper slips, all the proposals were accepted. Finland had a pro-nuclear Green Party.
Bucking the Anti-Nuclear Trend
While the pro-nuclear proposals had been controversial at first, the GST and its allies had long historical precedents in Finland on their side. While many across Europe see nuclear power as a unique evil threatening the planet, for most Finns, nuclear power is not special at all. Just two nuclear sites provide a third of the country’s electricity, and their track records are impeccable. Last year, the Loviisa plant broke a reliability record, working at full capacity 93 percent of the time.
Over half of some 5.5 million Finns express support for nuclear power. The latest poll shows that 60 percent have a “fully positive” or “mostly positive” view. No more than 11 percent have a negative view. Just decades ago, over 40 percent of Finns polled said they wanted to reduce the use of nuclear power. Today, no party in parliament has such a policy.
Even in Finnish environmental circles, the Green Party is not alone. None of the country’s green organizations campaign against nuclear either. It was a transformation that happened in parallel with that of the Green Party, as activists repeated pro-nuclear arguments in other organizations. Even the Finnish branch of Greenpeace, which has flourished internationally with its anti-nuclear stance, is now open to small modular reactors and accepts the current strategy for Onkalo, the repository to store nuclear waste in Olkiluoto. It’s a sharp contrast from just over a decade earlier, when Greenpeace built a “monument of selfishness” to shame pro-nuclear politicians. Sini Harkki, Programme Director at Greenpeace Nordic, now admits that it would be “difficult to reach net zero without nuclear.” The organization says that today, the monument would not be built.
In Finland, even Fridays For Future—the popular environmentalist youth movement started by Greta Thunberg—supports nuclear power. In a statement, the Finnish chapter distanced itself from an opinion article in which Thunberg herself and others argued against nuclear energy’s sustainability, and declared it unforgivable to rebrand it as green. Fridays for Future Finland responded:
Now is not the time to rule out one low-emission energy source altogether; rather, we need to use all means available to fight the climate crisis. Opposition to nuclear power will complicate and increase the already enormous task. If we want to stop global warming below 1.5 degrees, we need every possible means, including nuclear power, to achieve that goal.
In the same letter, the organization supported the EU classification of nuclear energy as a “sustainable investment.”
A similar turn in activist goals is underway among the Green Youth, a youth wing of the Green Party. Currently, the organization is pushing the main party to become even more pro-nuclear. While the party as a whole has turned on the question, younger members are among its most ardent pro-nuclear advocates.
The day after the Green Party assembled in Joensuu’s sports arena, a reader of the Finnish press would have the impression that nothing much had happened. The assembly did grab headlines in Finland—but for its discussion on cannabis. Domestic media did not seem to comprehend the magnitude of the shift.
However, the story was very different in international media. Tweets in English, Spanish, and French quickly reached hundreds of thousands of people. Prominent environmentalists, like British journalist Mark Lynas, applauded the move as a “historic shift.” For the moment, it seems that Finland’s Green Party has taken the lead in translating a shift in general environmentalist attitudes into concrete party policies.
By then, foreign journalists had also started taking note of Finland’s broader pro-nuclear environmentalism. Perhaps it took outsiders to recognize how unique it is. At heart, Finns are quite pragmatic. Questions that sharply divide other European countries—nuclear energy, NATO membership, and others—don’t inflame the same kinds of polarization in Finland.
Now, the climate is not the only crisis rocking Finland. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed how dangerous Finland’s reliance on its next-door neighbor was. With a war on its doorstep, Finland has an extra reason to wean itself off fossil fuels. Nuclear energy grants Finland multiple forms of independence: from relations with the Kremlin, from coal or natural gas, and from the weather that prevents Finland from relying merely on solar and wind.
Uranium can come from many corners of the world, and because of its natural abundance and ability to be stockpiled, it is not subject to outrageous price spikes. Further, regulators stipulate that any nuclear plant should have a supply of three years’ worth of electricity production, making it much less vulnerable to sudden world events.
Across Europe, mainstream and progressive parties are beginning to reconsider the continent’s decades of opposition to nuclear energy. Finland may have just been early. Belgium has decided to push back its early closure of nuclear plants by 10 years, and even the Germans seem open to forgetting the Atomausstieg program that would have closed all of Germany’s nuclear facilities. The Russian invasion seems to have accomplished what decades of scientific knowledge about greenhouse gasses couldn’t.
Just months before the invasion of Ukraine, at the Climate Summit COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, our pro-nuclear coalition joined in a Climate March. The march involved many different organizations, mostly from Europe and the U.S. We decided to have fun with it by dressing up as polar bears holding up pro-nuclear signs. “We want clean power now! We want nuclear power!” “Save the world, love the atom!” After all, we have to listen to the bears.
Not everyone was pleased to see us. Some asked angrily, “What are these people doing here? They don’t belong here!” Others suggested that we were being paid to participate in the demonstration. A few were horrified that we’d call nuclear energy environmentally friendly.
Suddenly one of us was attacked. The flag on her shoulders was ripped off; the leaflets she was carrying were thrown on the ground. The young man assaulting her looked like he was about to attack the person from our group who told him to stop. At last, he decided it was best to walk away.
A little bit later, he approached me, still upset. He wanted to know what on earth I was doing and who was paying me. Was it the nuclear industry?
I started to explain that I was here because I am a biologist and a mother who is worried about the future of her children. I told him I work for an environmental organization called RePlanet, which is funded by philanthropic grants, not industry. I asked him what he was worried about.
As our conversation went on, he started to calm down, realizing we shared the same concerns. I explained to him why I support nuclear power. I told him I’m very worried that we will not be able to reach our climate goals without it. That’s when he became curious rather than angry. In the end, he defended me against a verbal attack from a fellow climate activist who passed by. As he left, he took one of our leaflets.
For me, having to deal with this kind of behavior was a culture shock. In Finland, nothing like this has happened for years. While we did face opposition the first time we joined a Climate March in 2015, nobody ever questioned our presence since then. In fact, Suomen Ekomodernistit—which I chaired for several years—had even been invited by groups like Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace to climate events. We gave a speech just like everyone else and marched in the streets together. The experience in Glasgow made us realize just how much of an outlier Finland still was.
Pro-nuclear advocates are still an unfamiliar sight in climate demonstrations, both in Europe and in the U.S. But in Finland, at least, the presence of anti-nuclear activists has been decreasing for years. Finland has witnessed the death of anti-nuclear sentiment as a popular force. Its advocates have vanished from the streets.
Still, some political groups in Europe believe there’s widespread resistance against nuclear power. Instead, they may believe they win points by blocking nuclear development. The priority of pro-nuclear advocates in Europe is now to build bridges with people who still oppose nuclear power by emphasizing their shared goal of combating climate change. In addition, activists aim to persuade politicians that there is popular support for changing course.
Europe’s Nuclear Renaissance
Nuclear is the largest single source of electricity in Europe, generating 25 percent of its total output. In the early 1950s, when nuclear power was nearing its peak, Europe was quick to follow the U.S. in exploiting it. It was novel because nothing had to be burnt, nor did it require hydro-dams that blocked natural river flows and disrupted mountainous areas. Uranium was also easier to import and had fewer supply challenges than oil and gas.
In 1957, the leaders of six European countries came together and decided that the continent would need to be united. In the words of the French diplomat and EU cofounder Jean Monnet: “The spearhead for the unification of Europe would have to be the peaceful atom.” Together, these countries laid the foundation for what would become the European Union, and they did so with a nuclear future in mind.
In countries such as France and Belgium, which lacked natural gas fields, nuclear energy became dominant over the following decades, providing up to 75 percent of electricity. In some Eastern European countries such as Slovakia and Hungary, nuclear provides some half of all electricity, thanks to the legacy of the Soviet nuclear industry. In countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, it’s around 40 percent. By building nuclear power, these countries became less dependent on foreign powers for their energy needs.
Yet, after they started to reap its benefits, Europeans started to question the rise of nuclear power. Concerns about the environment and safety were raised. Economic growth and energy consumption were questioned. Since the 1970s, a growing and ever-more dominant anti-nuclear coalition objected to the construction of nuclear power plants. Despite the science around climate change that has developed since the early 1980s, nothing much has changed in the dominance of fossil fuels in the energy mix. It remains around 80 percent of all global energy consumption.
As environmentalist debates became a part of mainstream politics, European countries planned to bring down greenhouse gas emissions by tapping into renewables. Both wind and solar power have expanded as energy sources, with countries such as Germany and Denmark paving the way. Yet, what has become clear from these experiments is that solar and wind are not reliable sources of electricity for Europe. They require backup from other energy sources because they do not provide a stable supply of power for the base load.
Often, this missing base load is made up by natural gas plants that are ramped up and down, depending on the weather. Governments, activists, and pundits accepted natural gas as a “transition fuel” after the fossil fuel industry spent millions of euros advertising its use as a “partner” for renewables. But when recent wartime sanctions and sabotage disrupted the gas flows, these countries were forced to turn to even worse sources like coal—which, as of September 2022 was producing one-third of German electricity.
Thanks to the old consensus, climate policy became all about increasing the share of renewables, even if the results did not decrease CO2 emissions. This was based on theoretical models of future scenarios, rather than real data from countries that were able to reduce the use of fossil fuels and partially decarbonize their economies. France and Sweden did so in the 1970s when they built nuclear power plants, but were rarely, if ever, taken as models for other countries.
By the time climate policy became a political concept at all in Europe, it was informed by a desire to live in harmony with nature by using less energy, rather than embracing a future in which material development would continue. And as a result of the unrealism of the goal of voluntary degrowth, the actual goal of fighting climate change by lowering and offsetting carbon emissions became less and less attainable. Many environmentalists used extreme language to warn about the climate crisis, but then supported energy policies that entrenched the reign of fossil fuels.
By the turn of the century, Europe had fully opted out of the nuclear future. Global electricity production from a fleet of some 450 nuclear reactors fluctuated and stopped growing altogether. Between 2000 and 2020, a similar number of nuclear plants closed as were opened. The share of nuclear power in the global electricity mix fell from 17 percent to less than 10 percent.
While nuclear power is on the rise in countries such as China, India, and Russia, Europe went down a different path. Germany and Belgium had planned to shut down their plants. Sweden didn’t seem to care about their nuclear plants either and flirted with the idea of closing them down.
Finland, France, and the United Kingdom were outliers in this period. Construction started for several European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs), a third-generation pressurized water reactor. But headlines about serious overrun costs and considerable delays in construction strengthened Europeans in their conviction that nuclear power was a dead end. In Olkiluoto, the reactor opened 12 years later than planned—and with a few billion euros extra on the final price tag. Today, the reactors in Flamanville and Hinkley Point C haven’t been completed yet. Their names are still synonymous with failure.
The fact is that even in countries like France that maintain a larger nuclear infrastructure, anti-nuclear sentiments permeate those managing it. The generation that built many of these plants is retired and dying, while the current cohort of engineers largely grew up assuming that nuclear power had no future. Even when European states permit new construction, the combination of red tape with the decline of real nuclear expertise and innovation ensures that such projects don’t go far.
After decades of an anti-nuclear agenda from European leaders, this year the signal has changed. The nuclear renaissance may catch on in Europe after all.
Quietly, the European Commission has begun to accept nuclear power’s low-carbon potential, its low impact on land and resources, and the feasibility of handling waste safely. This has resulted in the inclusion of nuclear energy in the so-called “EU Taxonomy,” which defines certain industries as sustainable investments, making them eligible for favorable financing and additional public and private investments.
In 2021—the year before the Russian invasion and seven years after the annexation of Crimea—the European Union imported 30 percent of its oil, 40 percent of its natural gas, and almost 50 percent of its coal from Russia. In the wake of the sanctions and shipment disruptions spurred by the new invasion, energy prices soared. With a harsh winter ahead, countless households faced price increases in the range of hundreds of euros on their monthly energy bills. The value of nuclear power is no longer a theoretical point.
The question is how parties and governments will act on it, and how difficult it will be to recover decades of lost momentum and expertise.
Creating the New Base
In order to allow nuclear power to make a comeback in Europe, it’s the politicians who need to bend, especially those on the center and left. Since their traditional base has tended to be anti-nuclear, they have also been the strongest opponents of a nuclear policy. Scientific support for nuclear energy is not sufficient for changing the stance of decision-makers; a sense that they have majority support is even more important for establishing a new consensus.
But earlier this year, a study done by one of the UK’s leading polling companies, Savanta ComRes, showed nearly two-thirds of respondents in Europe agreed on going “all-out” on building new nuclear plants. The single biggest category was those who “strongly agree” (32 percent), far outweighing those who “strongly disagree” (seven percent). In Germany, nearly a quarter marked “strongly agree.” The group strongly disagreeing was only half of that. Even in strongholds of the anti-nuclear movement, like Germany, politicians have increasingly stable majority support for a pro-nuclear agenda.
Among the progressive parties traditionally popular among educated and largely urban voters, supporters appear to be more pro-nuclear than their party leaders may think. In the Netherlands, the liberal democratic D66 party has always rejected nuclear power. Yet, among its voters, 67 percent are in favor of expanding it, slightly above the national average. The current four-party coalition government has appointed a D66 figurehead to serve as the minister of Climate and Energy, which is responsible for preparing the construction of a new nuclear power plant.
In another Dutch opinion poll, 50 percent of voters for the social-democratic PvdA support nuclear, whereas only 23 percent oppose it. GroenLinks, the national green party, has the most opponents of nuclear power in its voter base; but even here, supporters make up 46 percent, versus the 28 percent that are opponents. Overall, just 14 percent of those polled in the Netherlands are against expanding nuclear power, whereas 51 percent are in favor. The rest are undecided—but that means they can be convinced.
The pattern is similar across Europe. As the war in Ukraine continues, overall support in Germany has increased, exceeding 80 percent in some polls. Looking at the support base for each of the most anti-nuclear parties, we find that there is popular support for a pro-nuclear position. Among voters of the social-democratic SDP, over 50 percent support nuclear power. So do over 60 percent of voters for Die Linke, Germany’s far-left party that is especially popular in Berlin and other cities. The turn has even reached the infamously anti-nuclear German Greens: 54 percent of their voters want to extend the life of existing nuclear plants. With the right-wing parties almost entirely pro-nuclear, this means Germany now has consensus across the spectrum.
This shouldn’t be surprising; it’s fairly easy to tie nuclear energy to the broader commitments of the center-left. Progressives have always positioned themselves as supporters of scientific advancement, and are comfortable with a larger role for the state in providing cheap electricity. Many Greens who support nuclear power appreciate how little land it requires, and long for an end to the fossil fuel regimes that have accelerated the climate crisis.
Beyond party politics, institutions within the European Union will likely pave the way for nuclear power to be normalized as part of a policy to respond to climate change and get independent from Russian fossil fuels. This includes educating the public, as many don’t even know basic facts about where Europe’s energy comes from or how nuclear power works. In Belgium, a country that has been getting more than half of its electricity from just two nuclear power plants for decades, six in ten students think nuclear plants emit CO2. As this kind of misunderstanding is corrected, support for nuclear power will become even more solidified.
As winter approaches and the energy crisis deepens, the support for nuclear energy is expected to rise even more across Europe. However, a purely reactive pro-nuclear narrative will evaporate the moment the crisis passes.
A new consensus will only be secure with a vision for what our future can look like if we deploy nuclear power to its full capacity: investing in new innovations, building more proven reactor models, and extending the lifetimes of current reactors. There will be demand for large nuclear plants as well as smaller ones.
But whether installations will be big or small, one thing is for sure: nuclear power is on the cusp of being big again in Europe. Add up the need to dramatically lower CO2 emissions, the need for energy security and energy independence, and the need to save land for biodiversity to flourish, and the nuclear renaissance is all but inevitable.
For green activists in Finland and the rest of Europe, the nuclear question remains linked to the climate crisis. We may find the seed of an even broader vision for a nuclear renaissance. Not just a solution to climate change or to the present energy crisis, nuclear power is a vanguard technology for a future of green energy abundance and industrial development. It can help alleviate energy poverty and raise standards of living, in Europe and beyond. It is an escape from man’s fatal zero-sum conflict with nature.