Bursting the Bubble

Is Europe being left behind in nuclear energy development?

4 July 2016 | by

Brexit has taken most of the column inches recently throughout Europe, but amongst the ever changing tectonic plates of European geopolitics, day-to-day governance on a range of issues continues at pace. None are more important and potentially critical to the European energy sector than the future of nuclear development – both new build and plant life extension – as over 45% of current nuclear plants are predicted to come offline over the course of the next decade. Last week, in the same venue where COP21 was agreed, Paris held the World Nuclear Exhibition (WNE) where leading companies such as Rosatom, Westinghouse, EDF, and CGN attended to collaborate on the future of the industry, and ensure Europe is leading, not trailing worldwide nuclear energy development.

In recent years, the European nuclear energy sector has been in a state of stasis as large scale new build projects – previously geared towards kick-starting overall nuclear deployment – have been bogged down with engineering, construction, and financial difficulties, most notably in Flamanville, Olkiluoto and Hinkley. These issues for EDF’s EPR technology have been well documented and place serious questions marks over the future use of the technology throughout Europe. But success using other types of reactors have been recorded in Eastern Europe where nuclear support continues to be high amid the need to low carbon, dependable, domestic sources of energy supply. It is seen as almost a pre-requisite for economic and social development. Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Poland are all either currently building, or plan to imminently develop, new nuclear to wean themselves off coal and gas, while at the same time strengthening their low carbon energy security from worldwide energy shocks. But opposition to nuclear continues to undermine and hinder nuclear development more widely with two issues coming at the top of most citizen concerns: cost and waste disposal.

To coincide with WNE, the pro-nuclear advocacy group: New Nuclear Watch Europe (NNWE) held two Nuclear Energy Policy Forums (NEPF), first in Paris alongside WNE and then in Brussels, on these very subjects to discuss how industry and government groups could tackle both issues and push forward the debate surrounding nuclear development across Europe safely, but with more urgency. Tim Yeo, Chairman of NNWE and former Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee in the UK Houses of Parliament led both discussions, stating: “The purpose of the Nuclear Energy Policy Forum is to tackle the key technical issues facing the European nuclear industry today. On the real cost of nuclear, NNWE advocates the need for a proper study of all available nuclear technologies, both first-of-a-kind and nth-of-a-kind, to understand fully the issues of cost, deployability and benefits to the local economy”. Whilst on the issue of nuclear waste, the question of whether there was a need for a pan-European standard on spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste was broached, with Tim Yeo commentating that he recognised “the advantages a pan-European standard on spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste management could offer, and urged governments to consider working more quickly towards these ends”.

The real cost of nuclear energy

The cost of nuclear energy is often cited as one of the key issues when any government develops a site. When compared to renewable energy technologies and the price of coal and natural gas, it is easy to see why many baulk at the high upfront capital needed – for instance Hinkley (the new build in the UK) has been slated at a cost of £18bn. However, at the NEPF, the true cost of nuclear was discussed and assessed alongside renewables – and came out favourably.

Gilles Mathonnière, a prospective specialist at the CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission), commented that increased system costs – most notably grid connectivity – played hugely into nuclear hands. System costs for intermittent widely dispersed renewables are notably higher, whilst back-up generation is still needed at times of peak demand. Nuclear has none of these problems with a steady, controllable output from a fixed point before distribution. It also has the benefit of having, at the very least, a 30 year lifetime, with many plants being able to continue for twice that longevity – renewables are, as of yet, untested for that duration.

Michel Spiro, currently President of the French Physics Society and member of the scientific committee of the Nuclear Safety Authority, outlined the additional cost safety processes which have been added to nuclear operator developments, making them the most scrutinised and secure energy systems currently in use. Insurance costs and shutdown protocols are built in – which creates a high upfront cost, but in the long-term is beneficial to all. If an accident were to occur, the cost of clean-up without these initial costs would be incalculable.

Lastly, Philippe Chalmin, an economist at the Paris-Dauphine University (and an ex-economic advsior to the French President) rounded up the debate by advocating the importance of nuclear for energy security and bringing down consumer bills in the long-term. Arguing that the key issues are not the actual cost of development, but political, and geo-political, considerations which compounded new developments.

Is a pan-European standard on nuclear waste needed?

In a lively debate, participants and speakers put forward their views with the majority being in favour of the idea of a pan-European standard, but with flexibility for nation states to decide on their own in-line with subsidiarity. Other notable discussion points centred around the need for increased public engagement wherever nuclear developments and waste management plans occur and how the industry is seeing cost reductions at the back-end of the fuel cycle as expertise and best practice is shared. This is critical for future clean-up operations and the effective management of nuclear waste.

Pierre Kockerols, Senior Expert Nuclear Safety and Security, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) gave an overview of JRC work commitments, advocating that: “Following the European Waste Directive, nuclear spent fuel management policies need to be established to generate robust technical solutions, ensuring continuity of knowledge, securing investments and facilitating public dialogue.” Miroslav Zimermann, First Secretary Energy Policy Unit at the Permanent Representation of the Slovak Republic, speaking on the agenda of the Slovakian EU Presidency (July 1), commented on the importance of nuclear for Slovakian, and European, energy security, stating: “Public support for nuclear technology is still high, and one of priorities for our Presidency is focusing on revision of regulations under article 41 of EUEAROM treaty and new Nuclear Illustrative Programme PINC”.

Touching upon French priorities, Guillaume Gillet, Counsellor for Nuclear Affairs at the Permanent Representation of France said: “National programmes are imperative in each Member State and [progress has] to be shared at European level in order to allow an exchange of experiences, ensuring that there is an equal standard in radioactive waste management”.

Importantly, Anna Rak, Associate Member of the Greens of Ukraine Association, closed the debate by giving an account of how important a pan-European standard was in light “… of the plans to secretly fast-track construction of a surface dry, spent nuclear fuel storage system just 70km away from Kyiv, close to the Dnieper river, which ignores basic nuclear safety standards, creating the threat of a second Chernobyl”. She urged the case for EU intervention in this regard with an independent environmental review.

 What’s next for nuclear energy in Europe? 

With over 23 ongoing nuclear projects across Europe, and over 45% of current reactors due to be offline, or closing down within 10 years, nuclear energy is at a cross roads within Europe. The UK, one of the most pro-nuclear Member States within the EU is now in the process of Brexit. France, one of the leading technology suppliers is split on the issue with the EPR technology nearly bankrupting Areva and EDF, and the domestic anti-nuclear lobby becoming stronger as the cost of renewables decreases. Germany’s blanket ban on nuclear in light of the Fukushima disaster and their Energiewende policy closes off the largest market for development, and the failing the EU ETS and the setting of a stable, and workable, carbon price limits the scope of governments to be persuaded to invest in nuclear technology.

Rosatom (Russia), CGN (China), Kepco (South Korea) and Westinghouse (America) are all  working on contracts in new markets – including Europe – in light of COP21 at the end of 2015 as countries try to limit their carbon output and diversify their domestic energy mix. Where does this leave Europe’s leading nuclear technology providers such as EDF and Rosatom? The European nuclear sector has been a key export for over 50 years of European, and EU development. As the Energy Union continues to take shape, a clear and decisive decision on where nuclear fits in to the overall energy mix – especially with the drive towards more interstate inter-connectors – is needed to ensure Europe does not fall behind on all the benefits a strong nuclear sector brings to the region: low consumer bills, high skilled jobs, and most importantly – low carbon baseload power.

What do you think?