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European Energy Sovereignty: Putting an End to the Stigma of Nuclear Power

ARTICLES - 11 April 2022

Should we phase out nuclear power or reduce carbon intensity? For the last ten years, Europe has been torn between these two options, the first being embodied by Germany and the second by France. When the European Commission presented the REPowerEU plan on March 8, 2022 with the aim of reducing the EU’s reliance on Russian gas, nuclear power was not even mentioned. This absence reveals the extent of unresolved tension underpinning Europe’s energy sovereignty. 

The new geopolitical context generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demands that this debate is settled quickly. This urgency is heightened by a third component, our energy independence. For the first time since the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, energy sovereignty is emerging as a priority for Europe’s future. 

The European Union must overhaul its energy policy, prioritizing its independence from Russia and the reduction of carbon intensity. Phasing out nuclear power should be one potential option, accessible to Member States who wish and are able to go down this route.

To end Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, the REPowerEU plan is using every means possible…with the exception of nuclear energy.

The EU is currently facing a major energy crisis, due to its dependence on Russian gas. Gas is central to European energy issues for three key reasons. First, because it is the second-most used energy source in Europe (22% according to Eurostat) and crucially the second source used in electricity generation (19% in 2021). Second, gas has a diverse range of uses, affecting everyday life (heating buildings) and the continent’s industrial power (industrial processes, steam, etc.). Third, the EU’s largest economic power, Germany, is directly concerned: it imports more than half its gas from Russia and is by far the largest consumer of Russian gas in terms of volume.

The European Commission has taken stock of this emergency and presented, on March 8, 2022, the REPowerEU plan, which proposes a strategy to cut reliance on Russian gas by two thirds in the space of a year, as well as outlining the target to phase out dependency on Russian fossil fuels by 2030. It proposes to leverage several aspects of the energy policy: diversification of EU suppliers - in particular by increasing the share of liquefied natural gas in its gas supplies - massive investments in renewable energy sources, and stepping up energy efficiency policies. 

Surprisingly, this plan remains silent with regard to nuclear power. In this respect, it offers a stark contrast to the ten-point plan published a few days earlier by the International Energy Agency (IEA), with a view to reduce demand for Russian gas by one third in one year (a scenario which also maintains the pace of greenhouse gas emissions reduction) namely 60%, in which case the EU would have to slow the process of reducing its energy’s carbon intensity. IEA experts are calling for power plant operators - which reportedly account for more than 20 TWh of low-carbon electricity in 2022 - to restart reactors stopped for maintenance or safety checks as quickly as possible. France, Europe’s main generator of nuclear power, is directly concerned, particularly at a time when its nuclear power plants are generating at a record low. Secondly, IEA experts recommend the postponement of reactor closures scheduled for 2022. Two Member States are directly concerned: Belgium, which had planned to shut down two reactors in 2022-2023, and Germany, which had scheduled a full phasing-out of nuclear power by 2022. It should be noted that the IEA did not mention Germany’s recent (December 31, 2021) closure of the three reactors.

Nuclear energy is, however, imperative for solving the European energy equation

Let us start with an important reminder: nuclear energy, which is responsible for one quarter of Europe’s electricity generation and slightly less than half of its carbon-free generation, makes Europe the most reliant continent on nuclear power in the world. Thirteen of the twenty-seven EU Member States currently have a total of 103 nuclear reactors in operation, generating 100 GWh of power. These include Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. In each of these countries, the share of nuclear energy in the electricity mix varies greatly. A single figure sums up these discrepancies: in 2020, more than half of the EU’s nuclear power was produced by a single country, France.

Admittedly, in the short-term, nuclear energy can only make a limited contribution to Europe’s bid to solve the energy crisis. Nobody is claiming that nuclear power is a panacea for the energy challenges of the 21st century.

Nuclear energy, which is responsible for one quarter of Europe’s electricity generation and slightly less than half of its carbon-free generation, makes Europe the most reliant continent on nuclear power in the world.

However, beyond increasing the volume of electricity generation that is not reliant on Russian gas, the measures recommended by the IEA would also avoid a rise in coal usage. Each additional MWh of nuclear power helps to limit the use of coal, which is set to increase in the short and medium term as a result of measures to reduce Russian gas consumption. We need only to look at Germany for evidence of this reality. The country has just reopened its coal-fired plants, in order to prevent resuming its three recently shut down reactors, or postponing the scheduled stoppage of its three remaining commissioned reactors. 

All other factors being equal, coal generation could jump by 11% in 2022, continuing its sharp growth in the European electricity mix in 2021 (+16%) and reclaiming its place as the EU’s second source of electricity generation. With regard to alternative energy sources, it is important to remember the following: whatever the pace at which renewable sources of electricity are being developed, their intermittent nature calls for investment in steerable generation capacities. Today, cutting Russian gas without nuclear power demands using coal for electricity generation instead, as biomass is not a sufficient solution to this intractable situation.

Giving up on available nuclear energy and shifting to coal would therefore have a twofold short-term impact that is both environmental and geopolitical, as 50% of coal consumed in Europe is imported from Russia. This is even more so the case in the long term. The IEA has repeatedly stated that nuclear power must be prioritized as a way to reduce the carbon intensity of our energy system. It is the duty of all countries with this technology to retain control of it and develop it domestically or in other countries. The European Union, a leading player in this field, is therefore directly concerned.

The European energy policy’s credibility, a guarantee of our security in the new geopolitical order

In addition to the environmental emergency, we must now consider the new geopolitical order: our security is inextricably linked to the credibility of our energy policy. Yet, how credible can the European energy policy be if it refuses to include nuclear power as a solution? At the same time, it promotes technological gambles with uncertain timeframes and economic results (such as hydrogen) and calculations that have little foundation in reality - setting renewable energy targets without phasing out coal or gas does not bring about a significant drop in CO2 emissions. 

An extensive development of renewable energy sources, as proposed by the Commission, is imperative and will be more effective if steerable fossil fuel sources are reduced concomitantly. Germany is a prime example of this: advocates of the Energiewende often stress that the gradual phasing out of nuclear power is ineffective given the increase in the share of coal. This is true but off-topic. The real challenges lie elsewhere. Firstly, the phasing out of nuclear power has delayed the phasing out of coal. Secondly, Germany cannot phase out nuclear energy (2022) and coal (2030) without a heavy reliance on gas, regardless of the development of renewable energy sources for electricity generation, due to their non-steerable nature. 

This reasoning applies to both Germany and the European Union as a whole. In other words, giving priority to phasing out nuclear power - or decreasing nuclear power in the energy mix - means prioritizing carbon intensity reduction, as well as reliance on Russian gas and coal, in second position. Conversely, a swift and credible reduction in carbon intensity is not compatible with the phasing out of nuclear power in the long term. Furthermore, as nuclear energy does not lead to reliance on Russia, there can be no European energy sovereignty without nuclear power.

A swift and credible reduction in carbon intensity is not compatible with the phasing out of nuclear power in the long term.

The time has come to put an end to the heated debate between France and Germany on Europe’s nuclear energy, and to work on a credible strategy that forms an integral part of the sovereignty project outlined by the French President on March 2nd

Nuclear power in Europe: the extent of divisions

Before we consider what such a strategy could entail, it is important to provide an overview of nuclear power in Europe. Crucially, there is great uncertainty as to how this power should be integrated into the European energy mix by 2050. As stated in the IEA’s latest World Energy Outlook published in October 2021, there are arguments for extending reactors’ lifespans or conversely for bringing forward their closures, and halting projects under consideration. It must be said, however, that none of these scenarios predict strong growth. Similarly, in its long-term climate strategy presented on November 28, 2018, the European Commission restricted the share of nuclear power to around 15% in 2050, which means that current capacity would be maintained, despite predictions of major electricity consumption growth (50-60%). 

The outlook for nuclear energy in Europe can help us identify five country groups:

1. Countries which, while operating reactors, wish to phase out this energy. 

2. At the other end of the spectrum, three countries are building reactors, due to be commissioned in 2022 and 2023:

  • The EPR built in Finland was connected to the national grid on March 12, 2022. It will reach its full power output in the summer of 2022, supplying 14% of the country’s electricity. 
     
  • EDF has announced that the French EPR in Flamanville will join the grid in 2023.
     
  • Slovakia will connect two units, one in 2022 and the other in 2023, enabling it to become an electricity exporter. 

3. Alongside France, eight European nations are intending to build new reactors, some in the short term, in addition to extending the lifespan of existing reactors, to which many countries have already committed.

  • Hungary, which had signed an inter-governmental agreement with Russia in 2021 for the funding and construction of two additional reactors, work on which was set to begin in 2022, confirmed this project following Russia’s invasion. This project is, however, being called into question due to the crisis, particularly as the construction company, Rosatom, is a State company close to the Kremlin.
     
  • Conversely, as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, Finland stopped its Fennovoima project, for which it was planning to use Russian technology. It is unlikely, however, that this move away from Russian technology means that the principle of building an additional reactor will not be carried out.
     
  • Slovenia, in partnership with Croatia, plans to build one or two units to offset its phasing out of coal by 2033. 
     
  • The Czech Republic is also in a race against time to deal with its planned phasing out of coal by 2038, and is planning to build two reactors in 2024.
     
  • In 2021, Bulgaria, which is heavily reliant on coal since joining the European Union and closing its old Soviet reactors, put an end to its saga of building a Russian-technology reactor, for reasons unrelated to the geopolitical situation. Like Romania, it signed an agreement with US company NuScale at the end of 2021 for the construction of modular reactors (SMR). It has just announced the launch of a study to fast-track the construction of a new reactor on the Kozloduy site. Greece has expressed an interest in purchasing some of its future production.
     
  • In 2021, the Netherlands announced its intention to build two major EPR-type reactors. 


4. In between these two groups, there is a group of countries who have not yet expressed clear intentions regarding the future of their nuclear power plants. Sweden, which has held a forty-year debate on nuclear energy, has released no clear statement regarding the future of its reactors, which have life spans until the 2040s. However, the country, which shut down two reactors in 2019 and 2020, is considering reopening them. This debate was initiated in 2021 at a time of severe strain on the Swedish electricity market, when the southern part of the country, experiencing shortages, had to import very carbon-intensive electricity from its neighbors. This event triggered many debates across the country, which boasts the least carbon-intensive and cheapest electricity in the EU.

5. Lastly, Poland, which has never used nuclear power up to now, wishes to roll out a major program (six reactors) in order to successfully phase out coal, on which it is heavily dependent. The future of nuclear power in Europe will largely be decided by this country, courted by France and the USA for the provision of reactor technology. 

A European strategy to step up nuclear projects is imperative

The European Union has demonstrated its capacity to undertake bold strategies in the roll-out of renewable energies or, more recently, of hydrogen. It must now do so for nuclear power.
This strategy could consist of three pillars:

The first, a prerequisite for the others, is political.

Recent debates on the protracted creation of the European taxonomy for sustainable activities have heightened intra-European tensions, particularly with regard to the role that nuclear energy should play in the future. The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU undoubtedly contributed to crystalizing the divide between France and Germany’s positions into a sterile stand-off. As France and the UK, two powerful Member States, shared the same views on the role of nuclear energy, this limited Germany’s inclination to build a coalition of opponents.

The fierce debate on the EU taxonomy was a clear indication that things had changed in a post-Brexit Europe. Germany brought together a group of anti-nuclear States (Austria, Luxembourg, Spain, etc.) to support its views. The upcoming debate at the European Parliament on the Commission’s taxonomy proposal submitted on February 2nd is set to rekindle Europe’s debate on this issue.

Against the new geopolitical backdrop of the Ukrainian war, when the credibility of European energy decisions will be analyzed by Moscow, the European Union cannot afford to divulge its disagreements once again. We must remember that, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s Environment Minister, Steffi Lemke, of the Green Party, visited Warsaw and claimed that Germany would use "the appropriate legal instruments at European level" to prevent Poland from launching a nuclear program.

Member States must sign a political neutrality agreement on the issue of nuclear power.

Member States must sign a political neutrality agreement on the issue of nuclear power that includes the following terms: each State is free to make its own decisions - as enshrined by treaty, Member States select their own energy mix and there is no question of blocking the plans of Member States wishing to develop or simply conserve their nuclear capacity.

It is on the basis of this freedom of choice that Germany decided to phase out its nuclear plants and increase its reliance on Russian gas, without consulting its neighbors.

The second pillar is financial.

The current taxonomy proposed by the Commission, which will soon be debated by the European Parliament, aims to resolve the rift between the French and German positions.

In this respect, it promotes an extremely conservative view of the future of nuclear power in Europe. Firstly, nuclear power is deemed a "transitional" energy source, as is gas: is this compatible with the major challenge of displaying a credible and sovereign energy policy with regard to Russia? Secondly, the text sets unattainable objectives: "To be eligible under the taxonomy, nuclear projects must have obtained building permission before 2040 for facility modifications and before 2045 for new plants. In addition, from 2025, they will have to use fuels that can withstand very high temperatures so that they can remain intact in the event of an accident (so-called "accident tolerant fuels"). This type of fuel is currently being tested in the USA but will not be operational in the US or in Europe before 2025. This condition is not achievable". Lastly, the timeframe proposed for eligible projects is not necessarily consistent with the development of small modular reactors (SMR), which could account for some of the industry’s future development, particularly for exports. These restrictive conditions place a significant strain on both the feasibility and timeframe of projects. On the other hand, by promoting access to competitive financing, taxonomy is a key challenge for the industry, whether to finance the construction of new plants, renovate existing ones, or sell on the export market. 

The energy emergency resulting from the war in Ukraine means that those developing nuclear projects and investments must be able to rely on a clear, rapid and credible instrument, which is not currently the case with Europe’s taxonomy. In reality, the geopolitical situation has made the taxonomy obsolete and it must now be overhauled. This is a key condition for the credibility of nuclear power in Europe’s future energy policy.

The Commission must introduce a policy that supports Member States with the financial engineering of projects.

More generally, the Commission must introduce a policy that supports Member States with the financial engineering of projects. Several financing scenarios are currently being tested in the Czech Republic and in the UK. To stand up to the Russian Rosatom financing and construction model, this issue must be clarified.

The third pillar is industrial.

The European industrial landscape is currently dominated by two companies, EDF and Rosatom, which are both competitors and partners. Most foreign competitors are American. 

This means that the credibility and appeal of the European nuclear project is broadly reliant on the credibility of both the French nuclear strategy and the national utility company. This credibility has been undermined over the last decade, both by the policy to reduce the share of nuclear power voted in 2012, and by the sector’s insufficient industrial performance. This is particularly evident in the (lack of) productivity of existing French power plants, and the major delays of the Flamanville EPR construction project (connection to the grid was initially planned for 2012, but is currently expected in the second quarter of 2023, for which construction began in 2007). This is a major concern, both in the short term - as it currently prevents France from generating maximum output due to a lack of available capacity in the existing facilities - and in the medium term, as it restricts the scale of the plan to build new plants. The industry study commissioned by the State and entrusted to Jean-Martin Folz in 2018 has been followed by EDF rolling out the Excell program, with a view to improve the performance of the Flamanville III site and the industrial excellence of the entire sector.

As we enter into this new geopolitical era, it is now essential to keep all available options on the table so that the nuclear sector can once again be in a position to achieve excellence and meet the targets set by politicians. Competition, new alliances, governance: there can no longer be any taboos underlying the urgent reform of the European energy policy, whether it comes to existing reactors or plans to build new ones. The industry requires politicians’ trust and commitment. Politicians need a reliable industry that can deliver in terms of costs and schedules. A clear agreement is required - an idea that has been undermined in recent years. This agreement should not be a reboot of the glory days of France’s nuclear power policy. Instead, it must be forward-looking and tailored to today’s context.

Conclusion: charting the path towards energy sovereignty

To overhaul the European energy policy, the order of priority is clear: first, get rid of Russian gas, then reduce carbon intensity. With regard to denuclearization projects, it is in Europe’s general interest to postpone these plans. Plainly put, in the short term, the potential role of nuclear power is very limited. In the medium term, however, it is considerable (improved performance of existing plants in France, and stepping up the lifespan extension procedures for existing reactors). This is essential, alongside other technologies and policies proposed by the Commission, both for decoupling from Russian gas, and ensuring a long-term reduction of carbon intensity. 

 

 

Copyright: JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

 

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