Europe Divided Over The Future Of Nuclear
In Western Europe, nuclear energy is being hit by a political and ideological storm. The refusal to include it in the “Green Investment” label of European taxonomy was further proof that Brussels is unwilling to continue the nuclear gamble and give priority to hydrogen, offshore wind and solar.
On February 5th, a study entitled “Towards climate neutrality in the EU by 2050”, which was commissioned by the ECR and renewed the political groups of the European Parliament, called on the Commission to examine the role of nuclear energy in the European energy transition and to reassess its ambitious climate goals in the fulfillment. And while a quarter of EU electricity came from nuclear power in 2018, that generation has decreased by 16.7% since 2006, suggesting that the old continent is more divided than ever when it comes to nuclear power.
Everything quiet (for nuclear power) on the western front
Germany will be the first to reach the nuclear finish line in 2022, and the same deadline has been set for neighboring Belgium. Over the past decade, both countries have implemented massive renewable energy subsidies and decided to replace nuclear power with natural gas – a paradoxical choice when you consider that gas is much more carbon-intensive than nuclear power. However, this winter cold snap led to lower solar and wind power production (Germany recorded -72% for photovoltaic modules in January 2021). Germany therefore had to close the gap by using fossil fuels again.
Despite its prominent role in nuclear energy, France has also taken decisive steps to end its dependence on the atom. Recently, an IEA report commissioned by the French Ministry of Ecology raised serious doubts about the future of the nuclear sector in France, as it presented a 100% scenario as “technically possible”.
Aging reactors and mounting Green Wing pressure, fueled by safety concerns, have closed the Fessenheim plant and sparked controversy over the Bugey plant – one of the oldest in the country. This gradual phase-out makes it imperative to use alternative energy sources in order to adequately meet domestic demand and changes France’s export potential to neighboring countries.
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A scenario in which all European countries would phase out nuclear power would undoubtedly endanger energy security. That is why Eastern Europe takes a different position than what we observe in the West.
The east has to be nuclear to benefit from coal
Amid this nuclear skepticism, countries like Hungary and Poland are considering the possibility of nuclear energy to reduce their CO2 emissions. Indeed, during a meeting on February 10, members of the Visegrad group spoke together about the common need to promote nuclear energy. They also announced their intention to ask the European Union for funds to implement these projects.
Poland has been repeatedly warned of its poor environmental record. Around 74% of the electricity still comes from coal-fired power plants. However, under pressure from the EU, Poland decided to break the status quo and promised last fall to move away from coal in order to reduce its dependency to 56% by 2030. How will it go on? By building at least six nuclear reactors on the horizon of 2040 at an estimated cost of $ 40 billion.
This is not Poland’s first attempt to embark on a nuclear adventure: the country began building two reactors back in 1980, but its enthusiasm was stopped in 1986 by the Chernobyl accident.
One unknown variable remains in this tricky equation: who will be the supplier of these reactors? Although Russian VVER technology is currently gaining ground, Poland is torn between different options. First place went to the United States when Poland signed an $ 18 billion deal to buy US nuclear technology. Japan is also in this race of potential suppliers and a collaboration between the two countries in the construction of gas-cooled high-temperature reactors (HGTR) was recently announced.
After all, France is a strong candidate too. Indeed, Eastern Europe is a perfect market for the French nuclear industry, which no longer seems to be in demand domestically. During a short trip to Poland in early February, French Trade Minister Franck Riester was accompanied by the CEO of EDF to develop a framework for cooperation between France and Poland in the field of nuclear energy.
The Czech Republic is following a similar path as its neighbor Poland, although it already had a core capacity of 22 GW in 2018. The construction of their VVER reactors dates back to Soviet times, and now is the time to extend their operational life. Just like Poles, the Czechs discussed working with Japan in 2020 on the potential to build Small Modular Reactors (SMR) – a branch that is gaining a foothold in the industry today. The Russian option is also still on the table. This was particularly attractive to the Czechs in 2018, when the country entered into tough negotiations with Brussels about an exception to the state tendering rules for nuclear projects. And Russia is also one of the participants in the latest tender for the Dukovany plant. Related: Oil prices rise as US oil production drops 30%
Why don’t Eastern European countries switch directly to renewable energies? Firstly because of intermittency concerns, but also because of land restrictions. The study “Road for EU Climate Neutrality 2050” argues specifically for the Czech Republic that renewable energies may not be the best solution for meeting local energy needs and that their use by the challenging Landscape of the country is made difficult.
The study finally claims the cost advantages of nuclear energy over renewable energies. This statement is widely debated as many argue that the capital cost of thermal power plants is higher than that of wind and solar. However, the lifespan of nuclear power plants and wind turbines is very different and there is currently no common strategy for upgrading or recycling turbines and solar panels.
But for the time being, renewable energies will remain a luxury that Eastern European countries simply cannot afford. “We found it remarkable that the EU made a political choice in favor of renewable energies in the transition from fossil fuels without considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of all climate-neutral technologies,” said Czech MEP Ond? Ej Knotek, quoted by World Nuclear News.
By Tatiana Serova for Oil IX
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