Europe: turning a nuclear corner?

Delegates at the 15th European Nuclear Energy Forum in Prague last week heard that the European nuclear landscape looks increasingly promising.

A decade after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and Germany’s subsequent decision to retrench from nuclear power, the current landscape looks very different, according to EU Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson.

Opening the Forum, Simson said the shift in the conversation on nuclear in Europe had become even more pronounced over the past year, which is hardly surprising given the radically different energy context following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and the subsequent turmoil caused in European energy markets.

“I want to discuss what that new conversation looks like: the renewed potential of nuclear energy, the roadblocks standing in our way, and what needs to be done in the EU to remove them,” she said.

Energy security

The first of those challenges is energy security, Simson added, with a number of EU Member States this year seeing either a partial or full reduction of energy supplies from Russia. The European Commission’s REPowerEU strategy – formally adopted in May – aims to reduce EU dependence on Russian fossil fuels and to diversify supplies while pursuing a clean energy model, while also ensuring security of energy supply.

“Nuclear power, being amongst the lowest greenhouse gas emitters throughout its entire life cycle, has to be part of the decarbonisation discussion,” she added, noting that the EU is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, and while the “backbone” of the future European carbon-free power system will be “predominantly” renewables, the “reality” is that these will need to be complemented by nuclear:

“This is why nuclear energy is not just a safety and security concern, but also a real solution… Right now, nuclear power is the most prevalent low-carbon source providing the baseload we need for the stability of the electricity system. And in a year where security of supply issues have followed surging energy prices, we have seen how important is the availability of nuclear power.”

Modelling studies suggest that nuclear will need to have a share of roughly 15%-16% of EU electricity production in the “2030 and 2050 perspective”, she added.

Looming redundancy?

However, the scale of the nuclear challenge should not be underestimated, according to Simson, with analysis indicating that without immediate investment, around 90% of existing reactors would be shut down around the time when we need them most – in 2030:

“To maintain nuclear generation capacity at today’s levels by replacing retiring units with new reactors will need about EUR350-450 billion (USD361-464 billion) of investment, plus the investment of a further EUR45-50 billion in long-term operation of existing reactors.”

“All of this amounts to a hugely significant level of investment. And the cost of financing will play a key role in making nuclear energy production a competitive option,” she said. “Public investment will only get us so far. But we are sending the right signals to mobilise and incentivise the private sector in the same endeavour.”

Small nuclear 

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are an “important solution to integrate our energy system and decarbonise the sectors that pose the biggest challenge,” she said.

“Our aim is to have the first European SMRs to go live at the start of the next decade. Because of that, in Europe, demand for this new technology is on the rise. In a wide range of EU Member States there is interest in innovative solutions SMRs can offer,” she said. “I know that industry is responding to this emerging demand with several EU designs already under development.” 

REPowerEU in brief

Track one: diversifying supply and bringing in more renewable gases

With more LNG and pipeline imports, it plans to replace 60 bcm of Russian gas within the next 12 months.

By doubling sustainable production of biomethane it seeks to replace another 18 bcm, using the Common Agricultural Policy to help farmers become energy producers.

The EU also wants to increase the production and import of renewable hydrogen. A Hydrogen Accelerator will develop integrated infrastructure and offer all Member States access to affordable renewable hydrogen. 20 million tonnes of hydrogen can replace 50 bcm of Russian gas.

In parallel, the EU said it must accelerate its clean energy transition, noting that renewables make it more independent, and they are more affordable and reliable than the volatile gas market.

It intends to put millions more photovoltaic panels on the roofs of homes, businesses, and farms. It must also double the installation rate of heat pumps over the next 5 years.

By the end of this year, almost 25% of Europe’s current electricity production could come from solar energy.

The EU said it needs to speed up permitting procedures to grow its on- and offshore wind capacity, and rollout large-scale solar projects. This, it claimed, is a matter of overriding public interest.

The EU also wants to increase the production and import of renewable hydrogen. A Hydrogen Accelerator will develop integrated infrastructure and offer all Member States access to affordable renewable hydrogen. 20 million tonnes of hydrogen can replace 50 bcm of Russian gas.

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